contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Samhain

MORE AT HOME: APRIL 2021

I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.

I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”

My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.

That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.

Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.

I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.

Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.

(1) http://jonnyfluffypunk.co.uk/

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

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) https://eckharttolle.com/

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/02/24/who-is-the-goddess-I-pray-to/

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.

THE YEW AT SAMHAIN 2020

In my tree mandala of the year (1), yew is my Samhain tree, and to a large extent my November tree. It is an obvious choice, as I leave a quarter concerned with autumn and bearing fruit and enter one of winter and the dying of the year. Regeneration too, but that is some way off.

I admire the power and longevity of the yew, and am in some ways drawn to its energy. But I do not find the relationship easy. I can find it spiky and obscurely demanding. I can find myself resistant to the sensed demand. The alignment of tree and season alerts me to my own mortality and creates space for a reflective moment. But this year I’ve been alert to my mortality for much of the time. In reaction, at Samhain 2020, I feel naturally sluggish and drowsy. Something in me is happy to go down into the dark without too much awareness. Let the dying of the year be the dying of the year, it whispers. Just let it happen. Just let me go down into the dark and sleep.

The Green Man Tree Oracle (2) links the yew with perseverance, for ‘perseverance leads to achievement’. Right now I’m not much interested in achievement, but I notice that I can think of perseverance in another way. This has to do with sticking with the experience that presents itself, rather than life-coaching my way out of it.

I have been working with an intensified wheel of the year for the last 45 weeks. I have seen how easy it is to impose impose conventional or surface-willed patterns on my experience. The seasonal structure is real. I see, feel, hear, taste and smell it manifesting itself in the apparent world as the wheel turns. But the idea of the wheel still has the power to displace lived experience through formalised words, images and expectations. Perseverance on the path asks for two things, I think. One is permission to let go of any sense of project or practice when it loses authenticity. The other is to be truly sensitive and discriminating when I’m happy to be awake.

(1) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

INQUIRY NINE YEARS ON

My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)

By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.” (1)

This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).

Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.

Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.

I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/about/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(3) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/animism-is-a-hard-working-word/

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DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

ATLANTIC ANCESTORS

I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.

A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.

“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.

“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem

War vor peb ankenn

War vor peb peden

(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere

At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/britain-begins-debunking-the-myth-of-celtic-invasions/

(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001

*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.

BELTANE 2020

Greetings and Blessings for the fast approaching festival of Beltane/Samhain. May we all find ways to stay safe and to flourish! This post focuses on my sense of the Wheel at Beltane – aware also that each season contains the seed of its opposite.

For The Wildwood Tarot, Beltane is the moment when “the polarised energies of the land interweave and intertwine around the staff of the heavens, generating the pulse of life”. It is also concerned with balance, and linked to the traditional trump for temperance. There’s a call to discover what balance, balancing and re-balancing might look like in 2020. Where might different balancing acts take us? How does ‘balance’ apply collectively, with a continuing public health crisis?

In the card, the primal energies of the serpents, echoing both the caduceus symbol and the double helix, are vividly in the foreground. By contrast the mask-like human head towards the bottom of the picture is almost hidden. For me, it is sombre, an image inviting uncertainty and unknowing rather than ‘balance’ or any steady state. Beltane 2020 finds a world in flux. Anything is possible. At the personal level, balance might morph into a kind of poise, without attachment to specific outcomes, yet with a preparedness to navigate uncharted waters.

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

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

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

(4) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

NOVEMBER REFLECTIONS

In recent years, I have experienced November as a special month. Moving on from Samhain, it begins winter, and where I live it sees most of the fall. It is a reorientation towards darkness and inwardness. I began my contemplative inquiry, at first limited to OBOD, then to Druidry more widely, finally becoming universal, in November 2011 following a Samhain ritual.

I find November calmer than December, where I tend to feel jangled by the agitated dominance of capitalist consumerism and its appropriation of a Christian festival, itself the appropriation of a Pagan one. The old festivals had an offer for everyone, at least in principle. Now you have to have money to participate, and increasing numbers of people don’t. So I find December an awkward, uneasy time, a ‘festive season’ that, collectively, doesn’t quite ring true.

This sense of a problematic December has made the whole month of November special to me, and powerful for my inquiry. This year I have rejigged my daily practice and replaced a long morning session with shorter sessions in the morning and evening. In the morning I wake up and greet the day with a slightly ritualised (thanks to Druidry) set of exercises. Before going to bed I do a yoga nidra meditation, listening to an audio download. Both practices are grounded in what I would now call a sacrament of presence, and awareness that every experience points towards a source of being from which I am not separate. In this intersection of time and eternity I find my home. I don’t need special ‘spiritual’ experiences. This spirituality doesn’t require them: the work is to enhance my capacity to welcome any experience, including my resistance to negative ones, and find ways to respond. Hence I look to simple, regular practices that provide pragmatic benefits and also remind me of this core insight.

I find that the inquiry aspect of my contemplative inquiry is shifting its focus to personal life, relationships, culture and nature. What’s going on? How am I placed? How am I responding? What difference does my Sophian Way – with contemplative inquiry as its main expression – actually make? These are my November reflections for 2019.

A NEW WINTER

I’ve been in transit to winter for the last three weeks. Today is the day that I got here. The part of me that senses this movement is aware of only two seasons, summer and winter. There is a debatable zone twice a year, over varying lengths of time depending on events on the ground. I notice that the heavens are less important – sun, moon and stars impact only through the way they look and feel to me, and the way they affect my light. I am not, in this mode, a maker of calculations.

I’m not bringing in cattle for preservation or slaughter, the classic harbinger of Samhain. So I look for other signs. This year’s process began on my visit to Yeovil, where I was born and lived with my parents many decades ago. They are long gone, but I have naturally been thinking about them, and the life that we had there. Our old home is desolate and the picture above is a shop front from the same street. The Unknown sign is from well after my time, presumably once a catchy name for a modest business. Now it too is stripped out and empty, so that I don’t even know what Unknown once meant. This unknown is scripted only as a single word, a fuller story hard to find.

Yet there the sign is – Unknown – on the door, and I cannot help but wonder about it. Imaginatively I entered that door when I took the picture, in the limited sense that I’ve been conscious of it for the last three weeks, and it has flavoured my experience. I knew that I would write about it at some point. I’ve had dreams of disconnection, dislocation and dissolution. They haven’t stimulated anything so gothic as terror, but they have created a low level discombobulation, a sense of the times being out of joint. Two people close to me have had to weather unexpected misfortunes. There has been a theme of grey skies and heavy rain, interspersed though with jewel-like periods of sunshine in the continuing fall.

I recognised the decisive shift to winter when I saw ice today, outside the kitchen door. I embraced winter, and surrendered to it: a simple act of will, as I responded to the sight of ice. To some extent, during today, I have felt, briefly, the reassurance of being in a ‘season’, where the world follows its appointed course. Winter is here. It happens every year. But I still see that bleak door marked Unknown. The much celebrated wheel of the year, with its times and seasons, basis for a bedrock practice in modern Druidry and Paganism, is itself volatile and perceptibly changing. I don’t find much comfort or certainty there. I feel as if I have been woken out of a trance – and am called to a fuller relationship with unknowns and unknowing.

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