contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Sophian Way

‘ABOUT’ FOR 2020

A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.

As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. 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.

“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”

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

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

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

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

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.

WINTER MORNING LIGHT

This is 7 December where I live, a little after 8 am, itself a little after the moment of dawn. The sunrise is still early in its process, fifteen days before the turn of the year. I took the pictures on one of my regular canal walks, this time between Stroud and Brimscombe in Gloucestershire, England.

This year I am paying close attention to the dance of place and time. It is part of my re-grounding after my adventures in non-duality, yet retaining the learning they brought. I surrender to the experience of winter sunlight. I breathe it in, and it fills the world, enacting a primal awareness. At the same time I acknowledge the particularity of time and place, of movement and change in nature. I also know that my observation of this winter light, at this time and in this place, is unique. It will never happen again in quite this way. It makes me glad to be alive and here for it. This gift is all the greater, and all the more to be treasured, for that very vulnerability, personal and collective, of which I am also conscious.

REVISED ‘ABOUT’: INQUIRY UPDATE

In my spiritual life, inquiry is one of the disciplines. This is why my contemplative blog is called a ‘contemplative inquiry’. As inquiries run through cycles, and aims are in some sense achieved, my direction needs to be revised and updated. This means that revising the blog’s ‘About’ statement from time to time is a necessary part of the process. When I make revisions I try to make the history clear as well as indicating the new direction. Sometimes, like now, I also want to indicate the shift through posting the new ‘About’ to existing readers. This revision adds a third paragraph to an already existing two – and changes tenses a little in the second.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time this blog became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, and I identified my path as a Sophian Way. Drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places, I have experienced it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. It has encouraged a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“The most recent phase of my inquiry has been solitary and inward. It had to be. But now I sense a change. As my Sophian Way develops, I am becoming more attentive culture, community and the wider world. Here, the influence of Druidry, as an animist Earth spirituality, takes on a renewed importance. ”

REVISED AND EDITED FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER 2019

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

EYE OF SPIRIT

I walk my Sophian Way, seeking imagery for the end of November. The willows provide it. I see a dying back of the year, where the withdrawn and conserved life has a beauty of its own.

Stilling into presence, and holding the trees in loving attention, I act as the eye of spirit. I am aware equally of the uniqueness and otherness of the trees, and of my inter-being with them. I feel love, gratitude and wonder. I also feel a poignancy, and a sense of vulnerability – for them, and me, and everyone else.

I am glad to be taking pictures again after a gap of many years. There are dangers of displacing my attention into the process of photography, or of contracting into a collector’s obsession with ‘capturing’ images. My solution is to be artless and spontaneous in pressing the button – and to leave my phone in my pocket for most of the time. Once at home, I do find myself delighting in the record.

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