contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Shakti

LEARNING FROM OTHER TRADITIONS: KASHMIR SHAIVISM

My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.

“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.

“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.

“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.

“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”

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

THE WAY OF SOPHIA REVISITED

Five months ago, I wrote a post summing up my recent inquiry work (1). I was moving into an engagement with ‘Direct Path’ approaches and during this period I have been in transition and flux. This has been liberating, but at times hard to articulate publicly. Partly, this is a penalty of lacking clear identification with a specific spiritual brand.

Now, I feel a new sense of synthesis. It is built on a fresh understanding of a tradition discussed in my November 2017 post. This is the Way of Sophia, which I conflated in the post with Sophian Gnosticism. I said:

“To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail.”

I also said: “When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.” I notice now that I had already separated my sense of Sophia from my sense of “the system”. I only half-noticed at the time because of my pull towards the Direct Path. I’m glad of this, because my extended check-in with the Direct Path has enabled me to build a new house on better foundations, though still using materials from the old one.

Direct Path teachers have enabled a more rigorous investigation of non-duality than I have experienced before, one that points to a simplified spiritual life now the investigation is complete. Christian Gnosticism and Mahayana Buddhism (including, in practice, Zen) are gradual path non-dualisms. The Headless Way is a variant form of direct path. I believe that the animist and pantheist (or panexperientialist) currents in Druidry and Paganism point in a non-dualist direction. Sophia, for me, is the patron goddess of non-duality.

Tantric tradition shows how we can have a goddess of non-duality without compromising a non-dualist view. Here, Shiva is the empty awareness at the heart of reality and Shakti is its energy and form. She is both the Cosmic Mother and everything that is. Neither can exist without the other. Shiva and Shakti are not in reality separate from each other and we are not separate from them. We are them.

The non-dualist teacher Francis Lucille said: “When we see that the mind, in spite of all its abilities, is absolutely unable to comprehend the truth for which we are striving, all effort to reach enlightenment ceases naturally. This effortlessness is the threshold of real understanding beyond all limitations.” (2) At this point I find that an element of mythology helps. I need stories and for me, a Tantric iteration of Sophia is closer than the more familiar Gnostic one. She is part of my-here-and now reality, rather than the illuminator of a distant goal.

As well as being a Cosmic Mother, Sophia becomes, in active imagination, a guide and focus for devotion – less abstract, more relational than the empty abstract Shiva. Even in recent months, I have continued the occasional practice of using ‘Ama-Aima’ as a mantra within a breath meditation that borders on prayer. Now, I reclaim the ‘Way of Sophia’ as the best way of describing my spiritual identity and path. Everything I’ve learned can be integrated under this single title.

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

(2) Francis Lucille Eternity Now Temecula, CA: Truespeech Productions, 2006 (Edited by Alan Epstein)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/the-way-of-sophia/

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

 

CONTEMPLATION AS SACRAMENT

Everything is sacred, but dedicated time and space provide a focus. They deepen our recognition of what is already true. Sacrare in Latin means ‘to hallow’ and I feel hallowing to be mostly about my quality of attentiveness. Although, subjectively, I am always here and always now, I can be here and now, and relate here and now, in a more conscious and loving way, when the time and space are dedicated.

Since beginning contemplative inquiry in November 2011, I have had a morning practice that has been structurally constant whilst varying in specifics. It is framed by a minimalist Druid liturgy to establish and hold the nemeton, the dedicated sacred space. It includes exercise and energy work, walking and sitting meditations, and a brief loving-kindness meditation. These activities have referenced different traditions at different times, whilst preserving a consistent outline and intent.

This practice is the heart of what I do in formal contemplative practice. Since I draw on diverse traditions, this solo practice has developed within an overall context and narrative determined by and for me. I have never worked through a simple adoption of ‘teachings’, to me a somewhat infantilising term, and a residue of authoritarian spirituality. I have always maintained an independent approach, which I find necessary to a critical and creative culture of inquiry. It necessarily includes a meta level of evaluating traditions as well as a normative one of learning their views and practices.

I will continue with the same practice structure post-inquiry. Fundamentally (in I hope a good sense) I understand my practice as a sacrament, celebrating ordinary incarnation in this world. It works on two levels. The first is the dedication and framing of the whole practice. The second, more intensive level, is within my sitting meditation. This now uses a Shaivite Tantric rather than Buddhist form. It is an eyes closed meditation, aligning the breath to a mantra – which is something I’ve quite often done over the years, including the use of the Druid ‘awen’*. Here I use ham-saa. Traditionally this invokes Shiva as the empty awareness of the Cosmos and Shakti as its energy and form. My own sense is of deepened appreciation of the miracle of being and becoming, and a sense of how this is at once personal and universal.

I sometimes find that all my attention dissolves into the mantra. Its pulse and vibration become all that exists in my awareness. The meditative disidentification from world and perception, body and sensation, feeling and thought, leaves this one reality. The experience here is of existence acknowledging itself, in a way that doesn’t seem to be about me, as such, or in any sense a personal possession. Whether or not the experience happens in full, or whether the practice simply points to it, this mantra meditation hallows my contemplative practice. It is the heart of its heart.

Paradoxically, as this practice deepens, my ‘inquiry’ energy  begins to fall away. Where I am now feels like a destination. Though I still have work to do in the integration of experience and understanding, I am no longer looking for new frameworks or resources.  On completion of the inquiry, my contemplative life will continue, but it will have a different note.

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/awen-mantra-meditation/

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.”

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