contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Sally Kempton

THE SPACE BETWEEN BREATHS

“When a pendulum swings, there is a fraction of a moment at the end of each swing when the movement stops, before the pendulum starts to swing back. That moment of pause is the madhya, the central still point out of which the pendulum’s movement arises. All movement – whether the swing of an axe, the movement of the breath, or the flow of thought – arises out of such a point of stillness.

“That still point is an open door to the heart of the universe, a place where we can step into the big Consciousness beyond our small consciousness. As the medieval English saint Julian of Norwich wrote, ‘God is at the midpoint between all things’.

“… Such points exist at many different moments. One of these is the pause between sleeping and waking, the moment where we first wake up before we become fully conscious. Another is the moment before a sneeze or at the high point of a yawn. Another is the space between thoughts.” (1)

For Sally Kempton, this is the inner realm that mystics and sages have called the Heart – not the physical heart, or even the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms”. Her recommendation to meditators is to follow the breath, and to enter the madhya in the spaces between the inhalation and the exhalation, and between the exhalation and the inhalation. Focusing on the sound of the breath with a subtle and relaxed attention, we find the gaps and over time, without forcing the process, we find them expanding.

Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It has companioned me for the better part of a decade, and I am grateful for her influence on me as a contemplative practitioner. I do not follow her path of Kashmir Shaivism and the Tantric philosophy that underpins it. But I have always liked her framing of ‘meditation for the love of it’, which I see as a Druid and Pagan friendly approach. I also like the quality of her writing, and many of her practical recommendations.

In the present instance, I have found that the space between breaths is indeed a portal – placing me, in my own language, as ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. My experience is that the discovery of the space between breaths can lead on to a discovery of stillness even within the breath as it rises and falls. Stillness in the breath, co-existent with the movement of the breath, is potentially available at all times. It is largely through Sally Kempton’s work that I learned this lesson, and I am grateful to her for the experience and insight that I have gained.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

TANTRIC MEDITATION

“There are many schools of tantra, but the tantric tradition that I follow is at its heart a methodology, a set of yogic practices that aim at yoking us (yoga means ‘yoke’) with the numinous energy at the heart of things. One fundamental premise of tantra is that a skilful practitioner can use anything – any moment, any feeling, any type of experience – to unite with the divine.” (1)

When exploring the ‘Direct Path’ approach late last year (2), I mentioned Tantra, especially the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. I said : ‘if the Vedantic path is the path from I am something (a body and a mind) to I am nothing, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from I am nothing to I am everything. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion and love. The Direct Path brings them together.’ The consequence for me has been a further tilt towards Tantra.  After working with Rupert Spira’s contemplations (3) – for me, still Vedantic in flavour – I went on to work with another audio resource, offered by Sally Kempton (4). This is a modern presentation of practices from a classic Tantric text (5). I also re-acquainted myself with Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It (1)which I first worked with some years ago. In her introduction, quoted at the beginning of this post, she goes on to say:

“The core tantric strategy is to harness and channel all our energies, including the apparently distracting or obstructive ones, rather than trying to suppress or eliminate them. When we do that, the energy within thoughts, within emotions, in our moods, and even in intense feelings like anger or terror or desire, can expand and reveal the ground that underlies everything, the pure creative potential of consciousness itself. Tantrikas call that creative potential shakti.

“Shakti, the so-called feminine aspect of divine reality (often personified in Hindu tradition as a goddess), is the subtle pulsation of creative potency that permeates all experience. It is normally so subtle and hidden that tuning in to shakti can feel as if the veils came off your senses, or like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the landscape goes from black-and-white to Technicolor. In our reflective moments, the felt sense of shakti can be accessed by sensing the life force that pulses in the breath, and that is often experienced as energy currents moving in the body. In the yoga traditions, this internal shakti is called kundalini. It is quite literally the power that impels spiritual evolution. Though kundalini has hundreds of facets, one of the simplest ways we experience is as a subtle energetic pull – sometimes called the ‘meditation current’ – that draws the mind inward when we meditate. Many of the practices in this book help draw your attention to this energetic presence in the mind and body.”

The result of this work is a sense of closure for my contemplative inquiry, as an inquiry about path and practice. At the end of it, I find my home in a modern Pagan Druidry that fully integrates Tantric features, whilst also responsive to the wisdom of other traditions. My practice has a contemplative core. It continues to include formal meditation, body/energy work and an intuitive Goddess devotion. I live the wheel of the year. My inquiry energy is now turning outwards, wondering about new forms of engagement in the world.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Taken from the author’s preface.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/intensive-inquiry/

(3) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(4) Sally Kempton Doorways to the Infinite – the Art and Practice of Tantric Meditation Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2014

(5) Jaideva Singh Vinanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: a Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga Delhi: Motilal Banaridass, 1979

 

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

THE PHILOSOPHER & THE GODDESS

A story told by Sally Kempton in Awakening Shakti: the transformative power of the Goddesses of Yoga Boulder, CO, USA: Sounds True, 2013. The philosopher in question is Shankara, regarded as the founder of advaita Vedanta, which has been highly influential in theosophy and the New Age, as well as in India. But not unchallenged, though the resolution described in the story is equivocal.

“It happened like this. One day, as Shankara wandered through South India, he found himself on the bank of a river in flood. Shankara was fearless – he had faced down tigers, he had seen through the world-illusion – so what was the problem with a flood? He waded into the river and soon found himself up to his chest in rushing water. Then a weird thing happened. His body stopped working. Standing on one leg in the middle of a swift-moving river, with the other leg lifted to find his next foothold, he froze. His strength gone, his will paralyzed, Shankara panicked. For the first time in his life, Shankara knew the terror of being completely powerless. He realized that if he didn’t get moving, he could drown.

“Then he heard a cackling laugh. An old forager woman, bent with the weight of her years of labour, stood on the opposite bank. Desperately, Shankara called to her, ‘Help! Get help!’

“The crone raised her head and looked fully into her eyes. She laughed again, her laughter foaming over until it reached the sky. Then she dove into the river and in a few swift strokes swam to where he floundered. She seized him around the chest and pulled him to shore.

“’Shankara’, she said, ‘you preach that women are a trap. You say that this world is an illusion. You won’t so much as look at a woman. But can’t you see that your strength comes from Shakti? What happens when you lose your Shakti? Without Shakti you couldn’t even move your limbs! So why do you insult Shakti? Why do you insult the Goddess? Don’t you know that I everything? Don’t you know that you can’t live without me?”

“At that moment, the story goes, Shankara realized that he had been denying the obvious. He had been insulting his own life-energy – without which he would not even exist! He bowed down to the Goddess – for indeed, the old woman was the Goddess herself.

“Moreover, he became a closet Shakta Tantrika – a lover of the sacred feminine power within the world. He kept his conversion more or less secret – after all, he was an official world-renouncer. But today in South India, many officials of his orders of Indian monks worship the Goddess.”

HEART LANGUAGE

I tend to feel most centred and empowered when using heart language. By ‘heart’ I don’t mean the physical heart, or even the heart chakra, but the mystical Great Heart, a place of ultimate stillness, where the microcosm of the human heart opens to the macrocosm. Some people, for example in the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, think of this as the consciousness that underlies all forms, the divine mind, the Self (1).

There are those, like the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (2) who, for the very best reasons, make a separation between Heart as “the subconscious/superconscious mind and all the faculties that are non-intellectual” and the thinking mind activated by will and reason. For me this creates a separation and dualism. In my world Heart includes the reasoning mind, and continues to hold it at some level, even though the existential angst of the reasoning mind itself may defensively lose connection with the greater whole.

I do however share the view that Heart is accessed through the growth of a sensitive awareness that allows us to be receptive and whole by entering in to a more spacious ‘I’, a more integrated quality of presence. Through a fine balance of passive and active attention we can view the present moment through the eye of eternity, a viewpoint from which many wounds can be healed, many mistakes forgiven, many losses accepted. Whilst Great Heart cannot be grasped or understood through consciousness alone, “we can see with its eyes, hear with its ears, act with its will, forgive with its forgiveness, and love with its love” (2).

1: Sally Kempton (2011) Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True

2: Kabir Edmund Helminski (1992) Living presence: a Sufi way to mindfulness and the essential self   New York, New York: Penguin Putnam

DEVOTIONAL PRACTICE

I’ve never really thought of my spiritual practice as devotional.  Most devotional practice concerns relationship with deity or deities who are perceived – or at least talked about – in terms of self-conscious, independent being. The most widely used practice is petitionary prayer. I have never sat easily with this, though I know it works for many other practitioners. One of the earliest self-directing steps I took in my OBOD path, 19 years ago, was to change the beginning of the Druid prayer when using it by myself.  Instead of ‘Grant O Go/dess thy protection’, I said ‘I seek, within Spirit, protection’.

Although ‘my’ (?) spirituality – even in its most withdrawn and solitary moments – is in many ways all about I-Thou relationship of various kinds, relationship with separated deity/deities has not been my way of expressing it.  I do have a relationship with the Holy Wisdom, who is more and greater than I am, but I do not experience ‘her’ as separate.  That’s complicated, and I can’t say what’s “really” going on there (to the extent that “really” might be a useful word).

So my devotion has to be different. And the difference goes beyond a shift from petitionary prayer to contemplative prayer or other forms of deity yoga that practitioners use to deepen a relationship with the divine, take on the presence and energy of the divine, become possessed by the divine, or enter fully into Godhead.  I am deeply moved by the stories (when shared) of people who go down these paths, whilst finding that I am on a different one.

So – at this stage of my journey – I am grateful to Sally Kempton and her Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience.  I’ve been in dialogue with this book for well over a year now, because I’ve drawn on its teaching and practice without exactly agreeing with the first of following the second.  But she has influenced both.  She calls her path a “devotional and contemplative tantra” – a “fusion of knowing and loving” that inspires her to meditate.  She says:

The way is tantric through recognizing “the world and ourselves as a tapestry woven of one single intelligent energy”.

It is devotional because “it cultivates a loving attention to ourselves and the world”.  It is contemplative because it asks us “to turn into and rest in the interior spaciousness where we know the self as pure transcendent awareness”.

I’m still in dialogue.  I’m not sure I’d express myself 100% in the same way.  But I find here – as in the case of Taoism understanding and practice – a view from another tradition which is close to that of my ever evolving Druidry.  In particular “loving attention to myself and the world” (especially other beings who are close to me) seems like a good way for me to reclaim the word “devotional” and see myself as both devotional and contemplative in my practice.

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