contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: self

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

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/

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

EMPTINESS AND JOYFUL FREEDOM

This post takes its name from a book (1) about the ‘emptiness’ teachings traditionally associated with Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. It makes the case that the ‘ease’ they bring can support a culturally ‘Western’ approach to life. The insights can illuminate us regardless of tradition, enabling new departures in the politics and art of living. The book includes meditations and exercises, so that readers can check it out for themselves.

“Through the immersion in these teachings, the rigidity and solidity of seemingly inherently existing phenomena give way to a precious lightness of life in the world. The famous Buddhist writer Shantideva expresses beautifully how our mind comes finally to rest:

“When neither something nor nothing

Remains to be known,

There is no alternative left

But complete non-referential ease.

“I feel that, as a person who had been seeking truth and ultimate reality, I found a satisfying answer in the realization of the emptiness of all phenomena. This realization comes with a greater sense of ease.

“For spiritual practitioners like me, the rigid attitude of knowing what’s right for everyone is an easy temptation. Spiritual teachings tend to have notions of absolutes, which by their very nature seem to trump everything else. None of them can claim to have absolute, transcendent truth on their side, so all of them need to prove themselves on the level of conventional, ordinary reality with practical questions like:

’Who does the view serve and who is being marginalized?’ or

‘Is the view helpful, compassionate or humane?’

“ ….

“It was a wonderfully freeing moment to recognize that there simply is no one way that reality ‘really’ is, and therefore no way to miss out on it. … At that moment, it became completely OK to be my Western self again, rather than trying to emulate what I took to be the Eastern blueprint of an enlightened practitioner’s way of life.

“ …

“By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is free up to work with the empty self. This is where the West’s abundant sources of creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can even be treated as a work of art. Towards the end of his life Michel Foucault said:

‘What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.’

“Joyful irony is our Western Way to describe the fruition of the emptiness teachings. You no longer think that your own values and goals are underwritten by the nature of reality. This insight enables a flexible, unattached attitude towards your one views and vocabularies, and fosters respect for the views of others”.

(1) Greg Goode and Tomas Sander Emptiness and Joyful Freedom Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013 (Section written by Tomas Sander)

SELF AND FULLNESS

In my last post, I discussed an understanding of ‘self’ that draws of the work of Piero Ferrucci *. The same author offers a practice called self-identification. Whilst having similarities with practices from some eastern traditions and their derivatives, this western, Sophian, approach, has a loyalty to human personhood, avoiding the potentially dissociative doctrines of no-self or a purely transcendent ‘I AM’.

Ferrucci says: “the self is the part of us that can watch any content of the psyche without getting caught up in its atmosphere.” The idea is simply to dis-identify from the contents of consciousness and identify with consciousness itself.

SELF-IDENTIFICATION PRACTICE

  1. Become aware of your body

For some time just notice in a neutral way – and without trying to change them – all the physical sensations you can be conscious of: e.g. contact of your body with the chair you are sitting on, your feet with the ground, of your clothes with your skin. Be aware of your breathing.

When you have explored your physical sensations long enough, leave them and go on to the next step.

  1. Become aware of your feelings

What feeling are you experiencing right now? And what are the main feelings you experience recurrently in your life? Consider both the apparently positive and negative ones: love and irritation; jealousy and tenderness; depression and elation … Do not judge. Just view your usual feelings with the objective attitude of a scientific investigatory taking an inventory.

When you are satisfied, shift your attention from this area to the next step.

  1. Turn your attention to your desires

Adopting the same impartial attitude as before, review the main desires which take turns in motivating your life. Often you may well be identified with one or the other of these, but now you simply consider them, side by side.

Finally, leave your desires and continue with the next step.

  1. Observe the world of your thoughts

As soon as a thought emerges, watch it until another one takes its place, then another one, and so on. If you think that you are not having any thoughts, realize that this too is a thought. Watch your stream of consciousness as it flows by: memories, opinions, nonsense, arguments, images.

Do this for a couple of minutes, then dismiss this realm as well from observation.

  1. The observer – the one who has been watching your sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts – is not the same as the object it observes. Who is it that has been observing all these realms? It is your self. It is not an image or a thought; it is that essence which has been observing all these realms and yet is distinct from all of them. And you are that being. Say inwardly: ‘I am the self, a centre of pure consciousness’.

Seek to realize this for about two minutes.

In this definition,  ‘the self’ is our underlying experience of  “crystal clear, limpid consciousness”. Learning to elicit the experience in full may take a while, but we are that self all the time. Experiencing the self does not mean blotting out all the other contents of consciousness. Feelings and thoughts may still be coming and going, but now they are in the background of awareness. While the self is by definition pure inner silence, it does not necessarily take us away from our everyday moods and activities. On the contrary, “it can increasingly manifest an effective presence and self-reliance. in daily life”.

Further possibilities unfold as we increase our self-awareness in this sense. Ferrucci says that as pure consciousness gains in clarity and fullness, we “make a direct approach to the creative vitality at the very source of our being”. The ways in which people describe this vary with time and place, language and culture. In ancient China, philosophers spoke of the Tao, whilst warning against attempts to define it. In the Pagan Roman Empire, Plotinus described an experience that seemed “unbounded” and “totally immeasurable”. A millennium later in Christian England, Julian of Norwich wrote: “Our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart, and I saw the soul was as wide as if it were an infinite world, as if it were a blessed kingdom.”

In my own experience, I have for quite a while had a sense of being ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. The ‘emptiness’ of pure consciousness becomes a ‘fullness’. I profoundly belong. I am energetically alive. I sense freedom and capacity. I feel distinctive within a larger field, yet with fluid and porous boundaries. I am opened to I-Thou relationship and the possibility of reciprocal recognition, personhood’s greatest gift.

As a contemplative exercise,  I find self-identification –  leading  on to a ‘fullness’ or ‘just being’ phase’ – profoundly valuable. It takes me half an hour and it seeds clarity and fullness in my daily life.

 

*Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989

 

SPARK AND SELF

In its Gnostic origins, the Way of Sophia sees each of us as a divine spark, exiled in a broken world and yearning for home. I, with my view of one life and one home, appreciate the reframe offered by Piero Ferrucci*. Here, ‘spark’ becomes ‘self’.

“Every morning when we wake and rise up from the darkness of sleep to awareness of our surroundings, of time and of our individual presence, we recapitulate in a few moments an adventure which took many millions of years: the awakening from the depths of unconsciousness. This saga started when the first forms of life came into being on the planet, and it eventually culminated in the emergence of self-consciousness and individuality.

“It is precisely this awareness of self that makes it possible for us to experience solitude and love, to be responsible to other human beings, to be aware of the past and the future, of life and death, to have values, to be able to plan ahead, to be conscious of our evolution and perhaps to be able to influence its course.

“Self … has been seen as the executive function of the personality, as the coordinator of behaviour, as the meeting place of conscious and unconscious, or as a constellation of attitudes and feelings individuals have about themselves. Still others describe the self as the result of our interaction with others, as the whole psychophysical organism, or as an illusory aggregate of transient elements.

“Psychosynthesis brings the matter to a point of extreme simplicity, seeing the self as the most elementary and distinctive part of our being – in other words, its core. This core is of an entirely different nature from the other elements (physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and so on) that make up our personality. As a consequence, it can act as a unifying centre, directing these elements and bringing them into the unity of an organic wholeness.

The self can also be defined as the only part of us which remains forever the same. It is this sameness which, once found and fully experienced, acts as an ever-present pivot for the rest of the personality, an inner stronghold to which we can always refer in order to regain a sense of poise and self-consistency. Then we can see that the self remains the same in ecstasy and despair, in peace and turmoil, in pain and pleasure, in victory and defeat. … It is a state of psychological nudity in which we have taken off all our psychological clothes – thoughts, feelings, images, physical sensations – and only pure being remains”

I will be looking at this understanding more deeply in future posts, including implications for working with it, contemplatively, within the Western Way.

  • Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989

 

MABON

Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012 http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/Maponus/.

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/merlin) and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at http://www.last.fm/music/Silver+on+the+Tree

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press

4: http://www.everything2.com/title/Saint+Kentigern+and+Lailoken

5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser

‘SELVING’

For me, ‘self’ is a vulnerable, unstable, temporary construct – yet one we are still programmed to develop, and as real as anything in the apparent world.  Speaking for ‘myself’ I might put it like this: arising from a chaos of confused and contradictory perceptions, needs and desires; easily stressed and distressed, prone to distorted assessments of the world and my place in it, the process of ‘selving’ is nonetheless a necessary personal and social skill. For better and for worse, it makes me human.

So I’m not a fully paid up subscriber to the view of ‘self’ as simply a misguided idea (though I do go along with ‘no separate self’). But I can value the pure version of the no-self approach as an occasional lens to use. A good look can yield valuable insights.  The radical non-dualist writer J. Jennifer Matthews shows how:

“‘Selving’ is a misunderstanding which causes us to problematize our experience. As soon as we postulate an independent and closed self, we start to bother ourselves.

“Allow me to speak for myself. I have been possessed by a kind of madness. This madness takes shape as a definite tendency to fixate on a person or way of life as my salvation. I abandon the ordinary; the day-to-day. I go for the highest, the most intense experiences, which allow me the most special and rarefied self-images. I reject what is right in front of me, and situate passionate dedication into the receding future.

“Oh alienating desire, that poison of the mind, which makes my friends’ faces foreign; the blue sky dull, food tasteless, and my passions mere shades, however fervently I pursue them! When I am in this particular, er, frame of mind, I keep trying to get to the part of the story where the heartache stops, as Gordon Lightfoot would say. And when I finally manage to stop this, or to use my favourite phrase, when I finally ‘start stopping’ here is the mystery. Right here.

“These crows cawing outside my window, have they always been here? And what about this rain, making soft riplets in the puddles on the walk?”

J. Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just as you are

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