contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spiritual inquiry

AFTER MANY A SUMMER

I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.

Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.

I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).

But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,

To dwell in presence of immortal youth,

Immortal age beside immortal youth,

And all I was, in ashes.” (3)

Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.

Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.

(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994

(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968

(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)

(5) Aldous Huxley Island Vintage Classics e-book edition (Original publication 1962)

LUGNASADH 2020

Lughnasadh (or Lammas) marks an important moment in my year. I move from a season of ripening to a season of bearing fruit. At the point of transition, both of these processes are happening. My distinction between ‘ripening’ and ‘bearing fruit’ is a soft one, allowing for continuities. But I know a harvest when I see one, and I celebrate it when it comes.

The Celtic fire festivals have a stronger hold on me than the solstices and equinoxes, with the exception of midwinter. I don’t know why this is. The quarter beginning in Samhain is one of dying and regeneration. I am happy to start and end my year in the middle of it: I have moved from the dying of the year to its point of regeneration. But it is the quarters that tell the most compelling story: from the time of dying and regeneration, to one of early growth – and then on to those of ripening and of bearing fruit.

August, though very much a summer month, comes with a withdrawal of light and intensity, very noticeable to me, where I live, in the last ten days of the month. September and October continue this whilst including fine and balmy days. Throughout much of my life, this is the quarter that has especially moved me. All periods have their magic. Compared to its predecessor, the quarter beginning with Lughnasadh has, at least for me, a quality of reduced intensity and greater subtlety.

2020 specifically continues to be odd and unsettling. I have not had my usual summer. I was essentially housebound for four months. I have not left my town since February. My upside, as a contemplative, has been an unseasonable permission to turn inwards. I have refreshed my solo Druid practice and I feel re-grounded in Druid culture.

I have recently crafted three forms of sitting meditation for use within my daily practice: I describe them as Light Body, Living Presence and Wisdom’s House. I will write more fully at a later date. This development marks a return to an older contemplative approach – I have moved away from formal sitting meditations in recent years. Each meditation is based on, or descended from, a practice previously used over a long period. This work has tenacious roots yet happily feels new and fresh. I look forward to its fruits.

Photo by Elaine Knight. See also: https://elaineknight.wordpress.com/

MERLIN’S TRANSFORMATION

The hermit card from The Merlin Tarot (1,2) shows a traditional image of the contemplative. The accompanying narrative points to evolution beyond the life of this world, whilst still in service to it. Stories of this kind characterise many spiritual paths. This one is Druid friendly, alive in my heart and imagination. Here, I want both to pay homage to heritage and to note a personal divergence.

Merlin has reached the top of the mountain, the austere end of his ascending path. All that remains is to bid the outer world farewell, “not as an inspired youth or madman seeking nature, but in full understanding”. The understanding is that of the Great Mother herself, typified by simplicity, clarity, and a will to withdraw from manifest existence. This is the moment to relinquish the earthly plane. A simple leap will do it. But Merlin’s destiny is not to abandon the world. In a greening of Mahayana Buddhism’s bodhisattva concept, Merlin, discarnate, will continue to serve the Goddess and the land.

Even as hermit, in this frozen moment on the cusp of anticipated transformation, Merlin is not quite alone. The seer is steadied by his staff, a branch from the tree of life itself. A wren, sacred bird of kingship and blessed of the Great Mother, has companioned and witnessed him throughout his journey. Soon it will be free to return to the green safety of its beloved low hedges. Merlin contemplates a crystal lamp – crystal being the underworld’s mineral equivalent of light. Caught inside the lamp, two primal dragons, dynamic yin and yang energies, underworld born, are held in a static balance that is described as “perfect”. A heretical thought arises: is the candidate for transformation, at the very last moment, questioning the ‘perfection’ of this absolute, frozen, stillness? What price the infinite?

In The Merlin Tarot, this is the last we see of Merlin. But for us, there is the path of descent, right down to its completion in an image of embodied realisation. The Tarot trump following that of the hermit Merlin, and complementary to him, is the Innocent, a young Sophian wisdom figure. Linking with the active energy of a Star Father who seeds the cosmos, she initiates pathways of giving and sharing on the descent, so that the earth itself may be changed.

R. J. Stewart is in a line of Western Mysteries teachers including Dion Fortune, Israel Regardie and W. C. Gray. In this tradition, discarnate beings linked to a cosmic hierarchy and dwelling on other, more spiritual planes, are real. They are not metaphors, aspects of the human psyche, or opportunities to think with stories. R. J. Stewart is clear about this, and I have always had to take respectful note of this view whilst not committed to sharing it. But I am moved and inspired by stories. On the contemplative path, the rational mind has at best an ancillary role. It doesn’t do well by itself. One option is to move into stillness and silence, and sometimes I do that. Another is to engage the heart and imagination, which are fed and watered by stories, their resonance, and their play intrapsychic relationships. The story told in The Merlin Tarot has nourished me for a long time, and continues to do so, in ways that satisfy me, without my wanting to be him.

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

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

DOG DAYS

The dog days of summer are by reputation hot, sultry and ill-aspected. As high summer becomes late summer, we can fall out of love with the season. We may find ourselves less comfortable than we would like to be, on the edge of storms that may or may not break. Nature can seem rank and overblown. Insect life is busy, in ways not always to our taste.

Yesterday I walked on the banks of our local canal between Stroud and Brimscombe. I had not done this walk since early March. At the height of the Covid crisis, I decided to leave the narrow towpath alone. For a long stretch of time through spring and summer this section of canal and I have gone our separate ways. It was early in the morning and not especially hot. The canal itself gave me my dog days feeling. What I noticed was a wild, rank fecundity, not conventionally photogenic. It is as if the space were resisting the (interrupted) attempts to make it navigable once again, sustainably beneficial to us. A different ecology had established itself. In my feelings, and imagination, the ‘dog days’ energy became a counterpoint to convenience conservation.

I like convenience, and I like walking on the towpath. I respect the restoration project, and the volunteers who are making it happen. I also respect the ever-renewing power of nature. I look at the picture below, where evidence of canal can barely be seen – just a suggestion on the far bank. I reflect that this stretch of water was once deep and wide enough for trows, traditional canal boats used on the Severn and Wye rivers. Brimscombe Port was as far east as they could go. The canal going on to Lechlade had a narrower gauge, and cargo had to be transferred to Thames barges. That early industrial world has long gone. The new development, whilst making inroads, has not yet ocupied this space. In the meantime, nature is free to be inconvenient, and to some people doubtless unsightly, whether we like it or not.

VARIETIES OF ONENESS

When I say ‘oneness’, I mean interbeing rather than singularity. I am talking about the web of life, the great song, a field of living presence. Singularity allows only an I. Interbeing has room for I and You and We and They. This recent picture of a half-hidden corner in our garden, taken by my wife Elaine, makes the point. The fact that she took it also reminds me that the mature recognition of ‘you’ is the foundation of true relationship.

This oneness of interbeing does not need a myth of origin to sustain it. Interbeing just is. I’m an intuitive idealist, fascinated by metaphysical questions, including questions of origin, and the systems of myth and metaphor which address them. But I am not spiritually dependent on answers. That is the advantage of Druidry as a practice rooted in nature. Today is a day for celebrating the natural side of my path.

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

FROM LACK TO ABUNDANCE

“Try to get

what you want,

and it’s already

far away.

Be what you want,

know it in your heart,

and it’s already yours.

The rest is details.

The rest,

you never really wanted anyway.

From lack to abundance,

in a heartbeat.” (1)

There is wisdom in this slender poem. Mediating wisdom is a traditional task of the Druid. This includes recognising wisdom in others and passing it on. For my own Druid path, the invitation to “be what you want, know it in your heart” has always had a resonance. The poem as a whole points to a more grounded stance in our lives.

Jeff Foster’s words are the product of recovery journey that led him out of debilitating levels of depression and suicide risk. This involved in inward turn, away from external markers for success in the wider world, that paradoxically enabled his true ability to connect. Hence his complete reframe of ‘abundance’. Elsewhere in the same book (1) he says: “abundance is your connection to each breath, how sensitive you are to every flicker of sensation and emotion in your body … the feeling of the afternoon breeze on your cheeks, the sun warming your face. It is meeting others in the field of honesty and vulnerability, connecting beyond the story, sharing what is alive”.

He also says that it is “knowing yourself as presence, the power that creates and moves worlds”. This has become a crucial understanding within my renewed and consolidated practice of Druidry. It is an insight common to the perennial wisdom traditions, and so a place where many paths converge. It aligns Jeff Foster with R. J. Stewart’s view, recently explored in this blog, that “we are the tree of life” and “the stars are within us” (2,3).

(1) Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

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

MERLIN AND THE MIRACLE TREE

This is the last post in a series offering an overview of R. J. Stewart’s Merlin-related work. The Complete Merlin Tarot  (1) in the picture is the companion book to The Merlin Tarot (2). Together I find them a good way to engage with the images that Stewart derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s introduction of Merlin to twelfth century readers. For me it is an example of what Joseph Campbell (3) calls ‘creative mythology’, a feature of Western European culture from Geoffrey’s time onward. Creative mythology drew on traditional Celtic and Germanic stories, the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome, and elements from Gnosticism and Islam. It gave imaginative depth and freedom in an era of constraining religious formalism.

Geoffrey, specifically, made wide use of classical and British Celtic sources. In The Life of Merlin (4) both the wild man of the woods section and the contemplative observatory section point to something beyond the conventional spirituality of the day. Its cultural frame of reference is broader – the observatory motif points back to Stonehenge and east to the proto-modern observatories in Damascus and Baghdad.

In The Merlin Tarot, R. J. Stewart places Merlin imagery within a Kabbalist Tree of Life framework. His commitment to the Tree goes beyond simple observance of the Tarot’s structural conventions. Stewart affirms that Kabbalah essentially means “whispered wisdom, mouth to ear” (5). He talks of three streams of Kabbalah, Jewish, Sufi and Western. All, he suggests, predate the Abrahamic orthodoxies of the Middle East and Europe, whilst being influenced by them. Ultimately, the Tree of Life is “not a set of symbols, not a system of meditation and vision … not even a tradition … we are already the Tree of Life”. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Literature, a Miracle Tree that can change us “from a false and imbalanced state to our real and eternal Being”.

From an historical, record examining perspective, Kabbalists became visible in the urban Jewish communities of Languedoc, in South Western France (6), also during the twelfth century of Campbell’s creative mythology. Indeed, other Jewish scholars and mystics frowned on their eclecticism. Languedoc’s vibrant culture included the then flourishing Gnostic Cathars and was the heartland of the widely travelling troubadours. This was the day of the crusader kingdom in Jerusalem, and the partial adoption of local lifestyles by its own permanent military residents – next door to an Islamic world which tolerated religious minorities. It is a moment in the domains of the Latin Church, not destined to last, that was friendly to new ways of thinking and feeling. For me, there are sufficient cultural resonances  here to make a Kabbalistic framework for the Merlin Tarot images feel both appropriate and celebratory.

The tree is imprinted imaginatively within my body. I use now it in subtle healing and light energy work – choosing it over other systems like the three cauldrons of poesy or the chakras of kundalini yoga. The major trumps are likewise imprinted and related to the pathways between sephira. They will always be part of my spiritual story, thanks to an early, intense relationship with the deck and the understandings behind it. As part of my current consolidation, I have begun to use The Merlin Tarot again within my contemplative work, given its place in my history and its for me enabling association with creative mythology.

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

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

(3) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original U.S. edition published in 1968)

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

(5) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(6) Gershom Scholem Origins of the Kabbalah The Jewish Publication Society & Princeton University Press, 1987 (edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky; translated from the German by Allan Arkush. Original German publication Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1962)

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/

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

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