contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Sophia

HONOURING ‘THE WAY OF MERLIN’

The Way of Merlin came into my hands at the right time. It seeded a number of key understandings, which nudged me onto a Druid path in October 1993. The first is that “sacred space is enlivened by consciousness. Let us be in doubt that all space is sacred, all being. Yet if human beings dedicate and define a zone, a location, something remarkable happens within that defined sphere of consciousness and energy. The space talks back”. Author R. J. Stewart backed this up with the further declaration that “The mystery of Merlin is a backyard mystery, for it declares the smallest, most local space to be sacred, to be alive, to be aware.” I was living in South London at the time and remember being challenged in this book to befriend a spring and a tree. At first, I thought, ‘what?’. Then I found them both, on the day I started looking, in a local park.

Such activities went with the view, “yourself and the land are one”, and that this apparently humble work has a larger context of “holism … identical to the deepest perennial magical and spiritual arts”. Magic is seen as a process of having intent and applying energy and imagery in service to it. Working within mythic frameworks asks for an enabling suspension of disbelief rather than a dogmatic literalism.

I did not work with the suggested programme of visualisations and rituals concerning Merlin, the weaver goddess Ariadne, and other scenes drawn largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin. As practices they seemed too long and formal. But reading Stewart’s text was psychoactive in itself. The weaver goddess Ariadne is a key figure, and the vision of Ariadne reveals a cosmic mother at the threshold of Being and Unbeing. She draws us into the empty silence of the Void, out of which emerges the sound of breath – our own breath and at the same time the breath of all Being. Being breathes through us, “and we realise that we have a body that is the body of all Being. The stars are within us. We are formed of the weaving”.

The specific image of Ariadne never took root in my imagination. But I acknowledged the power of this Pagan Gnostic creation myth. Its sense of our reality emerging from empty potential at the behest of a cosmic mother has stayed with me. My work with Sophia earlier in this inquiry pointed in the same direction. So does my recent post about Dancing Seahorses and Modron (2). I am happiest with the Modron image, because it is less defined and anthropomorphised than those of Ariadne and Sophia. At at the threshold of being and unbeing, she shows us that we are not separate from the divine breath that forms us, or from the creation that is formed. The stars are indeed within us, whether we know it or not.

The Way of Merlin has something like an ancestral role in my spiritual life. R. J. Stewart and I were born in the same year, but he was doing this pioneering work in the 1980’s when I was busy with other things. He influenced me in the period immediately before I embarked on a Druid path, and I have revisited his work over the years. It still has riches to offer.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

WISDOM AT MIDSUMMER

The picture shows the power of sunlight on trees to an observer – me, using my sight and my phone camera. I am not sure what it is like for the trees themselves, but I imagine it to be a positive experience.

This post is about the effects of the same power in my own psychic life. In a personal meditation, “I find myself in a walled garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is a warm and radiant midsummer morning. The full bright sunlight strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming and illuminating each drop as it falls. I can hear the plashing of the fountain, and birdsong a little further off. My bare feet are on the lush grass. The air is sweet. The sun is at my back, recharging my energy, in particular activating the sun in my heart”. From that point, the meditation can continue and deepen in a number of ways.

This  garden is the Garden of Wisdom, the Wisdom of William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1), a poem of 13 four-line verses, where each line covers a week. Though the Green Man has a lover in the spring, Wisdom is named, as Wisdom, in only one verse.

26 Oct-1 Nov:  The reedbeds are flanking in silence the islands

2 Nov–8 Nov: Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits.

9 Nov-15 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, say the Green Man.

16 Nov -22 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

But at the present time of year, the focus is on the transformation of the Green Man himself, his head having been offed between 25 May and 7 June.

8 June – 14 June: Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

15 June-21 June: As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features

22 June -28 June: ‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

29 June – 5 July:  ‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

Late in 2019, I stopped calling my inquiry path a ‘Sophian Way’ and re-centred it in Druidry. It was the right decision, and I have found it very fruitful. But at the psychic, Innerworld level, I have experienced a sense of loss concerning aspects of the Sophian Way, especially the space I called Sophia’s Garden. Now, thankfully, I have found that a simple re-naming as Wisdom’s Garden has been enough to re-integrate it within my current Druid practice. A more specific link with William Anderson’s Pagan, earth-centred poem also helps. Wisdom speaks through the wheel of the year, and acts as a companion and guide within my Druid path, on both the physical and psychic levels. She is also Zoe, the life beyond time, and the Green Man Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. It seems to me that we are both of them. Perhaps that is Wisdom’s secret.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth: London and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

WORLD TREE AND SOPHIA

The World Tree stands at 21, as the final trump in the Wildwood Tarot (1). It also has a specific link to wisdom. For some years I’ve thought of my path as a Sophian Way. So I assumed that the Tree would act as a Sophian card. But it doesn’t. The Tree feels fresh and new. For me, as I contemplate it now, it has nothing to do with Sophia. I knew this on my first significant seeing of the image, without needing to check it out any further or even know how I knew.

Then, in my first reading of the cards, I drew the 3 of Vessels (the water suit). Its placement in the western direction was linked to the question, ‘what do you leave behind you?’ The image shows three cranes dancing together in the air, with three vessels (golden, green and white) on the ground. In the narrative of the deck, the card represents joy, especially a familial or communal joy linked to favourable turns in circumstance. My first uncensored response was ‘no-why-me-it’s-not fair’. The second was ‘ah! They mean attachment to joy and not the experience itself. I know what to do about that.’ It didn’t help. Finally, I saw beyond the card and its narrative to my own deeper experience.

This is about letting go of my hitherto guiding archetypal image. This is about letting go of Sophia. Looking again at the card itself: 3, Vessels, West, Cranes, I found as good a Sophian reference as the pack can afford, given that the World Tree is not providing one. Once I recognised this, I started to recall how my recent attempts to articulate what Sophia means for me have become awkward and strained. If I have a sense of guidance from parts of me that my normal consciousness doesn’t seem to register, why not just say so? If my spirituality is about nurturing and developing a creative wisdom of the heart, why not just make that plain? If my contemplative inquiry is my main practice to this end, why don’t I just say that? Why call it a Sophian Way? Why use an image to point to something when I can point to it directly and make more sense?

I have never engaged wholeheartedly in a devotional religion. There have been times when my ama-aima mantra meditation, addressing Sophia as cosmic mother, has had flavour of this. But those times are gone. I have had to recognise that the image of Sophia has lost its power in my life. Right now, I have no sense of what this image is uniquely pointing to. I did not truly grasp this until the Wildwood Tarot showed me. The year’s journey will be taken without Sophia, and it is not what I expected.

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

INQUIRING

Early in 2003 I came across the phrase ‘life lived as inquiry’ in The Handbook of Action Research (1). It described a very engaged kind of work, which usually had a marginal standing within University systems. The chapters included:

Citizen Participation in Natural Resource Management

Learning with ‘The Natural Step’: Action Research to Promote Conversations for Sustainable Development

Transforming Lives: Towards Bicultural Competence

Participatory Research for Education for Social Change: Highlander Research and Education Center

The Sights and Sounds of Indigenous Knowledge

Creative Arts and Photography in Participatory Action Research in Guatemala.

As my own inquiry changes, I remember that my introduction to self-reflective practice, based on “robust, self-questioning disciplines” (2), came from this discursive world, and not from the forms of spiritual self-inquiry offered by Ramana Maharsi or Douglas Harding. Here it was assumed “any self-noticing is conducted by selves beyond the screen of my conscious appreciation” because “the conscious self sees an unconsciously edited version of the world, guided by purposes. Hence the whole of the mind cannot be reported in a part of the mind. For me this is an important inquiry lens, explicitly placing limits on ‘self-awareness’.

I’m aware of feeling a certain nostalgia for this way of thinking and feeling, and for that period in my life. From 2003-2006, after returning to England from eight years residence in New Zealand, I led a participatory inquiry into creative ageing. The participants were two groups of people in their 50’s and beginning to think forward to their later years. It became the basis of my PhD. but didn’t lead to anything fresh of relevance to my interests within the University context.

Yet doing this work was a big success for me and I haven’t forgotten its lessons. They remind me not to discard resources from earlier periods of my life, even under new conditions. From the perspective of Sophian inquiry, I see continuity. I can understand the ‘whole mind’/’part mind’ distinction as a materialist way of talking about Sophia and me. In this context ‘whole mind’ (Sophia) would need to include body, sensations, feelings and imagination – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and with no sealed individual boundary. My conscious narrative identity and what it knowingly draws on make up the more limited and constructed ‘me’.

It’s an inexact translation, and reads rather oddly. But it’s just good enough to let me reach back to a past time in my life and find valuable continuities. Doing this, I can create a better inquiry and a richer relationship with the world.

(1) Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry & Practice London: Sage, 2001 Edited by Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury

(2) Judi Marshall Self-reflective Inquiry Practices, Chapter 44 in Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry & Practice London: Sage, 2001 Edited by Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury

WORD AND WAY

Sometimes I struggle with language. This struggle is part of my practice upon the Sophian Way. At times I think of it as a distraction, and perhaps a sign of incompetence. I become discouraged. How do I talk about something that can appear to be beyond a tantalising and distant horizon, while also being nothing other than the ground I walk on and the feet that do the walking? How could I ever find a language?

This is the edge of contemplative inquiry. This is the point where contemplation is asked to hold confusion and frustration. I am tempted to write them off as forms of failure or distraction, yet the stand at the heart of the practice. Writing now, I am not reporting on a practice. I am doing it. Sophia is not bought off by a spirituality of easy answers and sweet experiences. She is also not bought off by the line that ‘this is all beyond more words and thinking’, when spoken as a dismissal. That line is true, but it doesn’t let me off the effort of doing what I can to express what I experience. One of my experiences is this very struggle with words.

I once had a self-image that, in the evening of my days, I would be somehow beyond all this. At times I feel I am. In August 2018 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 – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”. At that time I believed that this blog had run its course. I looked forward to a period of “fruitful silence”, and I went on to have one. Essentially I stand by what I said then, about At-Homeness, and healing and grounding in a flowing now. It is an important practical take-away from my inquiry. But no formula stands eternal, or does everything. By April of this year I was writing again.

As I continue my inquiry, I will be asking myself more about the ways in which sensations, feelings, images, intuitions, thoughts, beliefs and self-image, shape my contemplative experience. I think this particularity matters. I, James, am in a different place from Douglas Harding, when he says: “Without God, Douglas would not exist but without Douglas God would have no awareness of Himself. It’s like light and darkness. You don’t have one without the other. But the Ultimate truth is that there is only God “. If I could only fall into line with this language, I would never have to think again. But I wilt in conditions of mono-cultural monologue. For me, it offers meaning at the price of love, energy and wonder, and the price is far too high.

In his own life, Douglas Harding was by no means short of love, energy or wonder, and he used a language that was entirely congruent with his truth. But I am different. I have a different view and I trust my feelings in this. I experience my personhood a valid in its own right, even though largely constructed and deeply enmeshed in wider systems. The cosmos I know expresses itself to me through its generativity and multiplicity. My own experience of the Headless Way experiments has been about losing the sense of a boundaried and separate self in an immersion, and a deep connection …. which I associate with notions of ‘inter-being’, and web of life … and I know that my language isn’t as clear and definite as Harding’s … and that I have different experiences at different times … and change my mind … and continue to struggle with words. I’m also discovering that I’m at peace with this. My inelegant inquiry is held within the flowing now, and forms part of my At-Homeness.

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

THE FLOW OF INQUIRY

There’s a saying that we never see the same stream twice. It’s true, from a certain perspective. The water is always different. In this recent picture there’s more of it than is usual. The flow is faster and more energised. But in another sense, it is clearly the same stream. There’s a pattern and a placing that make it the same. Not forever. But enough to give it an identity of its own. Enough for us to recognise it, and to be in relationship with it over time.

I think of my inquiry in the same way. It is clearly a process of inquiring, not a thing. It has changed a lot over the years. But I notice, looking back, that it does also have characteristic points of reference and recurring themes. It has its own kind of flow. I see for example that whilst taking up practices of self-inquiry linked to non-dualist movements, I have not embraced the movements. I have gone to them for insight, not belonging. Instead, I have naturalised the insight and reframed it in my own terms – such as stilling into presence, or finding home in the flowing moment. The central focus on Sophia, and the naming of a Sophian Way, has helped here. In my world, contemplative inquiry is a core Sophian practice.

I have also kept a least half a foot in the cultural matrix of modern Druidry, Paganism, animism and eco-spirituality. These movements are closer to my heart and imagination, and feel more like my cultural home. For me, emptiness only has meaning as a home to fullness and and an exuberant multiplicity of forms. The Sophia card (Major Arcana II) in the Byzantine Tarot has a vision of Sophia as present in all of creation and the natural world, and also “watching over the steps of the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessing to find their own path through the world”*. I am not at all sure about the word ‘holy’, but I see Sophia in the stream, and sense the guidance there.

*John Matthews and Cilla Conway The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom of an Ancient Empire London: Connections, 2015

SOPHIAN WAY?

This is my icon of Sophia. The artist is Hrana Janto (1). I call my path a Sophian Way, and the image is emblematic both of the path and the inspiration behind it. At times I wonder whether this name and image are still appropriate. On the whole, I am not focused on deity, gender or celestial realms. If I look within, Sophia dissolves into pure presence at the heart of being, If I look outwards, she dissolves into the web of life. Non-dual awareing removes the need for a cosmic mother, messenger of light, or healer in the heart. Doesn’t it?

And yet …

A young child in me likes this picture very much. He would like to be Sophia’s friend. He senses that she might be the kind of older friend who is also a guide. The whole picture throws open a door to another, more radiant, dimension. He feels relaxed and at home. He loses himself in happiness.

Another part of me, a good bit older, would like to delete the immediately previous paragraph. He wants the post to suggest that the evolution of my inquiry has delegitimatised the Sophian trope, or meme, or whatever word he is reaching for. To be fair to him, his deeper wish is to be in integrity as an inquirer, and to be seen to be so. His intentions are sound, but anxiety and concern to get it right have narrowed his horizons.

A third part, believing in caution, personal privacy and self-compassion, would like to delete both of the last two paragraphs above. He would like to spend more time with the image, and find another approach to talking about it. I can see his point, but I’m not going to take him up this time. The writing process itself has been inquiry in action, belongs on the record, and feels Sophian to me.

(1) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (The image at the top of this post is used with her permission.)

FEELINGS AND CONTEMPLATION

“In meditation, when a wave of feeling comes to visit – a grief, a fear, an unexpected anger or melancholy – can you stay present with that wave, breathe into it, let go of trying to ‘let go’ of it, and simply let it be, let it live, let it express itself right now within you? Can you notice the impulse in you to resist it, to refuse it, distract yourself from it and move away from your experience? Don’t judge or shame yourself for that impulse either, for wanting to have a different experience that you’re having – it’s an old habit, this urge to disconnect, this impulse to flee, this addiction to ‘elsewhere’.

” But see, today, if you can stay very close to ‘what is’, see if you can actually connect with the visiting feeling, gently lean in to your experience as it happens. Instead of shutting down, moving away, denying the energy in the body, can you gently open up to it? Can you flush it with curious attention? Let it move in you? Stay present throughout its life cycle, as it is born, expresses what it has to express, and falls back into Presence, its oceanic home?” (1)

The extract above is from a piece by Jeff Poster called When We Push Feelings Away. I support his approach, though I don’t now make firm distinctions between an activity called ‘meditation’ and the spontaneous flow of attention. I can stay present with the wave of feeling, and breathe into it, whether I’m ‘in meditation’ as a defined practice or not.  Meditation, once exotic and formal, has become naturalised. My contemplative life is pared down and minimalist, holding a strong sense of the sacred in daily life, including the work of self-healing. Jeff Foster continues:

“… One day, deep in meditation, perhaps, we remember, all feelings are sacred and have a right to exist in us, even the messiest and most inconvenient and painful ones. And we remember to turn towards our feelings instead of turning away. To soften into them. To make room for them instead of numbing them or ignoring them. …. So much creativity is released, so much relief is felt, when we break this age-old pattern of self-abandonment and repression, go beyond our careful conditioning, and try something totally new: staying close to feelings, as they emerge in the freshness of the living moment, waving to us, calling to us, seeking their true home in our heart of hearts.”

Jeff Foster calls this piece Pushing Feelings Away. I like his concern with holding and acceptance within what he calls Presence. I call my overall path a Sophian Way, and not The Sophian Way, because it is a solitary path that morphs and shifts.  Jeff Foster works with personal feelings from a transpersonal, non-dual  perspective that I find very Sophian, characterised  by wisdom, contemplation and compassion. My own path brings together this approach with the Eco-spirituality – or ‘Nature Mysticism’ – catalysed by my experience of modern Druidry.

(1) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: words of encouragement for tired minds and wild hearts Salisbury: New Sarum Press, 2019

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

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