contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spiritual practice

SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

As part of my contemplative inquiry, I have been looking at recent work by Rupert Sheldrake (1, 2). He identifies himself as “not a guru but an explorer”. I like that notion of ‘explorer’, with its sense that there is always space for new learning and development.

Sheldrake’s affirms that spiritual practice and research are “entirely consistent with the scientific method, which involves the formation of hypotheses – guesses about the way the world works – and then testing them experimentally. The ultimate arbiter is experience, not theory. In French, the word experience means both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. The Greek word for experience is empeiria, the root of our English word ‘empirical’. The exploration of consciousness through consciousness itself is literally empirical, based on experience. Spiritual practices provide ways in which consciousness can be explored empirically.”

In recent years, Sheldrake (1,2) has written two books based on this approach. Each discusses seven different practices that have been investigated empirically, both by the practitioners themselves and by scientists studying the effects of those practices. Every practice gets a chapter. The first book, Science and Spiritual Practices, offers:

  1. Meditation and the Nature of Minds
  2. The Flow of Gratitude
  3. Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
  4. Relating to Plants
  5. Rituals and the Presence of the Past
  6. Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
  7. Pilgrimages and Holy Places

The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:

  1. The Spiritual Side of Sports
  2. Learning from Animals
  3. Fasting
  4. Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings
  5. Powers of Prayer
  6. Holy Days and Festivals
  7. Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind

Sheldrake’s choices are all practices he has taken part in, which have also been studied scientifically. He looks at both the ‘subjective’ experience and the ‘objective’ evidence and discusses the ways in which the practices seem to work. He also offers guidance to readers about engaging with the practices. He is very clear that the two books “do not constitute a comprehensive survey of all spiritual practices, emphasising his point by listing others that have been left out: “yoga, service to others, tai chi, chi gong, devotional worship or bhakti, tantric sex, caring for dying people, dream yoga, and the practices of the arts”. He makes it clear that “some practices are better at some times of life than others, and all religious traditions  have their own combinations”. I have already discussed Sheldrake’s work on gratitude at www.contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/14/ and will discuss others in future posts.

Sheldrake’s overall purpose is “to show that there is a wide variety of ways to connect to greater conscious realities, however we conceive of them, and that the effects of these practices can be investigated empirically”. Sheldrake is an optimist about the possibilities of science and spirituality working together in the service of human flourishing. “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness, both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them. After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience Coronet, 2017

(2) Rupert Sheldrake Ways to Go Beyond, and Why They Work Coronet, 2019

NOTE: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books, including A New Science of Life. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sheldrake resigned his position at Clare and went to work on the physiology of tropical crops in Hyderabad, India, as principal plant physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 1974 to 1978. There he published on crop physiology] and co-authored a book on the anatomy of the pigeonpea. Sheldrake left ICRISAT to focus on writing A New Science of Life, during which time he spent a year and a half in the Saccidananda Ashram of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warwick Project for research on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

His website is www.sheldrake.org/

THE FIRST QUARTER

I began closely following the wheel of the year – not only the festivals – just before the winter solstice. I wrote then that “my current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it”*. How has the first quarter been?

I’ve been outside, taking pictures, concerned with visual images and the stories they tell. There’s been some tension between communing with nature and being a self-conscious observer, actively selecting images. But on the whole it works. Taking pictures slows down my walks, opening up opportunities for stillness and mindful micro movement. Special moments come by themselves – or not. In sharing my experience, the process offers the opportunity to show as well as tell.

The quarter has been very wet – the picture above, taken on 15 March – shows a continuing abundance – to the point of excess – of water. It is beautiful and entirely natural, but for me also part of a story of times out of joint, and the increasing impact of the climate crisis. The picture below, also taken on 15 March, adds to this story in two ways. One is the suggestion of dank fecundity in the abundance of moss on a branch. The second is the indication of a lost branch from the same tree. High winds have caused considerable destruction in the woods in my neighbourhood. In both pictures, there are cues for appreciation and tranquillity, whilst also an indication that significant other things are going on. My current approach to contemplative inquiry has helped me to notice this and pay greater attention to it than I might otherwise have done.

The second quarter of the year will be different. I have self-isolated in response to Covid-19 though I am still going out on walks. I am likely to double down on contemplative practice and inquiry at home. I strongly believe in contemplative practice as, among other things, a resiliency factor in personal wellbeing, enhancing my experienced quality of life. I will talk more about this in future posts.

SPRING, GRATITUDE AND COVID-19

On Friday 13 March I tasted spring in its fullness. I was flooded with gratitude. Yet ‘gratitude’, especially in religious settings, was for a long time a tainted term in my life.

Growing up, I faced demands to be grateful whether I felt it or not. Over time I came to link this idea to formal performance and competitive public piety: being seen to be ‘good’. It also left my natural feelings of gratitude, when they came up, unrecognised and untended. In this stunted state I developed a cynicism about how language is used, rather than finding ways about how, authentically, to identify and cultivate my own sense of gratitude.

I am sad about this, because, even from a self-referential perspective, the capacity for gratitude is linked to wellbeing, happiness, self-acceptance and a sense of purpose in life. Psychological studies (1) show that gratitude is an active agent and not simply the result of already existing wellbeing. Exercises in gratitude work for many people, for much of the time. There are now considerable academic and self-help literatures on the subject.

Most spiritual traditions recommend gratitude, and for many of them this is linked to a sense of the divine, or some other ultimate point of reference. But this isn’t necessary. Gratitude is named as the third of thirteen principles in Atheopaganism (2), which is based on an entirely naturalistic, science-based cosmology. Here too, gratitude is seen as a habit that has to be learned and practised. The practice can alter both our internal dialogue and our behaviour. “It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world”.

I came late to gratitude, in the sense being discussed. But I’m a convert now. Being older has somehow helped. There was a decisive moment just under fifteen years ago, when I was 56 years. I was diagnosed with a cancer that might have killed me and I started to ask myself how I was going to maintain my quality of life remaining if I found myself on a downward slope.

I concluded that I would need to do what I could to count my blessings whilst I still lived. I recovered – with the insight still in place. I have built on that with greater awareness over the years, especially since beginning my contemplative inquiry. Now I’m nudged by the coronavirus and the same principles apply. I’m enjoying the experience of spring, usefully aware of my mortality, and grateful to be here, now.

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practices Coronet, 2017

(2) Mark A. Green Atheopaganism: an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science Green Daragon Publishing, 2019 (Foreword by John Halstead)

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

REBLOG: ATHEOPAGANISM FOR SOLITARIES

We’re a subgroup of a subculture. Of a couple of them, actually: atheism and Paganism. So it’s not a surprise that though there are many of us collectively, we are spread thinly and may live far away from anyone else who identifies as practicing the path of Atheopaganism. Thus, this post, about practicing as a […]

Atheopaganism for Solitaries — Atheopaganism

NON-DUALITY AND YOGA NIDRA

This post is built around Dr. Richard Miller’s approach to Yoga Nidra (1) and my response to it. The resource I am working with – a book and a CD – was published in 2005. My concern in writing is with how a “meditative practice for deep relaxation and healing” can also be what one reviewer (2) described as the “perfect tool” for the author’s non-dual teachings. For the recommended practices “require only presence, and as such represent both the path and the goal of non-dual practice.”

The word non-dual is a translation of the Sanskrit advaita, literally ‘not two’. I remember a podcast in which Peter Russell (3), a long-term practitioner and writer in this field, cautioned against a tendency to equate ‘not two’ with ‘one’. He then told an ancient Indian story about the making of clay pots. A potter takes a lump of clay and makes two pots. One clay; two pots. In the Indian tradition, this is a ‘consciousness first’ understanding, and modern versions draw on terms like presence, awareness, ground of being, or true nature to point to our ultimate identity as this consciousness. ‘God’ is also used in this way. The understanding is that we are never separate from this identity, though we may feel separate from it, or forget it, or ‘not believe’ in it. After all, most of our attention is on our individual life in the world with all its pulls, stresses and demands.

Early in his book, Richard Miller describes his first experience of Yoga Nidra:

“Our instructor led us through Shavasana, the traditional yogic pose for inducing deep relaxation while lying completely still on the floor. The instructor expertly guided us into being conscious of sensations throughout our body, as well as to opposing experiences, such as warmth-coolness, agitation-calmness, fear-equanimity, sorrow-joy, and separation-oneness. I was invited to rotate may attention through the sensations elicited by pairs of opposites until I was able to embody these opposing experiences with neither attachment or aversion to what I was experiencing.

“I drove home that evening feeling totally relaxed and expansively present. For the first time in years, I felt free of all conflict, radiantly joyful, and attuned wit the entire universe. I experienced life as being perfect just as it was and felt myself to be a spacious nonlocalized presence. Instead of my usual experience of being in the world, I was having a nonmental experience of the world being within me, similar to experiences I had known as a child”.

Miller’s motivation to continue was “a longing in me to consciously awaken into and fully abide as this sense of presence”. As well as becoming a yoga teacher and psychotherapist he has worked with Direct Path teachings as a student of Jean Klein. He describes the very term Yoga Nidra as a paradox, a play on the words ‘sleep’ and ‘awake’ as it means ‘the sleep of the Yogi’. The implication is that the normal person is asleep to their true nature through all states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – while the Yogi is one who is awake and knows his or her true nature across all states, including sleep. The practice therefore involves both deep relaxation and deep inquiry.

A full practice on Miller’s CD begins with two commitments – one to a form of mindfulness at the edge of sleep where, for the reasons pointed to above, it is OK to ‘fall asleep’ since there is a trust that the process will continue to run at other levels. The second is described as a ‘heartfelt prayer’, articulated as though it has already been fulfilled – for in the absolute, there is only now: Miller gives the example ‘my friend is whole, healed and healthy’. Then the meditation moves through seven stages, the first six of which address specific forms of awareness: body and sensation; breath and energy; feelings and emotions; thoughts, beliefs and images; desire, pleasure and joy; and witness/ego-I. The final stage (sahaj) is our natural state, ‘the awareness of changeless Being’. Each stage provides an opportunity to identify conventionally positive and conventionally negative experiences, and to hold both in a wider embrace. The sixth stage inquires into the very nature of the ‘I’ that believes itself to be a separate witness, enabling the simple being of the final stage. The whole practice lasts about 35 minutes.

I’ve been looking for an evening practice to complement my morning one. After only a week, it has the right feel, the right format and the right length for me at this point in my life. Over the last three or four years non-duality has become my common sense. During this period I have worked a good deal with the ‘Seeing’ experiments of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (4) and also with substantial resources from Direct Path teachers Greg Goode (5) and Rupert Spira (6). A non-dual view, as a working assumption, is now both cognitively and experientially well installed.

I don’t have a deep interest in non-dualist metaphysics for its own sake. I am deeply committed to this world and my human life. What I find is that a non-dual model of reality adds to my experience of human life in the world, and cannot be separated from it. I find myself leaning in to this nourishing and illuminating possibility, and committed to commit to living by it. Roger Miller’s Yoga Nidra has met me where I am. I am very grateful for this gentle, life-affirming, and subtle practice, which helps to maintain me on this path.

(1) Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Holding Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005

(2) Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom Of Yoga

(3) https://www.peterrussell.com/

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path: A User Guide Non-Duality Press, 2012 (UK edition)

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body: Luminous World: the Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

OPENING TO SUBTLE CHANGES

A good reflection on giving attention from Mark Green’s in Atheopaganism blog.

Atheopaganism

A lot of what being a Pagan is about is paying attention.

Being connected to the world and to yourself means being aware of subtle feelings and changes in conditions that many around us simply may not notice.

Some of this is knowing the Earth lore for your region: what is the first tree to flower in spring where you are? What are the native wildflowers, and in what order do they appear? When do leaves begin to turn in the autumn, and which trees turn first?  Which asterisms (“constellations”) are ascendant at a given time of year? These are indicators–data points that can help us to notice that changes have arrived or are coming.

Some of it is watching, very carefully, for changes that happen so incrementally that the day-to-day changes are almost imperceptible: the changes to the angle of light and the color of the sky as…

View original post 238 more words

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/

REFINING MY PURPOSE

My contemplative inquiry is in a dynamic phase, as it refines and clarifies its purpose. Although I have always allowed myself a wide frame of reference, the original inquiry had a firm base in modern Druidry. That changed. My Druid journey will always be part of me. Nothing is lost or discarded. But my centre of gravity shifted. For a while I did not have a centre, until one crystallised a year ago with the fuller sense of what I named as ‘an At-Homeness in a flowing now’.

I thought my inquiry was over, and I stopped blogging for seven months. Then I felt prompted to begin again, I think for two reasons. The first is that I had new sense of inquiry as an ongoing, indefinite process, not something that would end with any single insight or discovery. The second was a sensed need for a stronger container without this becoming rigid or formal. I asked myself how I could give a Sophian Way more specific substance. This is what I have been doing in recent weeks.

I have made a new revision of the ‘About’ section of the blog. Reading it, I think that the first two paragraphs are here to stay. There may be a further evolution of the third, though with the essential direction still in place.

“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 themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life. In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now. I find that this experiential discovery has enabled greater presence, healing and peace. It also supports imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

“As I deepen into At-Homeness, I call my path a Sophian Way, understood as a modern Gnostic path drawing on the wisdom of many times and places. I am currently inspired by Douglas’ Harding’s Headless Way, and incorporating it into my life and practice.”

DOUGLAS HARDING ON STRESS

“The whole truth about you is three-fold. Instead of being the mere thing they told you you were, you turn out to be (i) No-thing at all, and (ii) the Totality of things (and, as these, altogether safe) and (iii) every particular thing that lies between (and, as such, altogether unsafe and at risk). Yes, you are wholly free from harm by your very nature as (i) and (ii), and wholly free from the stresses and strains of the world of things: and, by your very nature as (iii) wholly caught up in them. The difference between you as Container (i & ii) and as Contents (iii) is infinite, the separation is nil. On the one hand, each of those things counts as just itself, just one thing. You, on the other hand count as zero and an infinity of things, and each of them in particular, as well. As 0 and ∞ you are stress-free. As what lies between them you are stress-bound.” (1)

Harding goes on to describe how “the contents that fill your ever-peaceful Container build a Universe out of their clashing”, as a horseshoe takes shape from the downward blows of the hammer and the upthrust of the anvil. But does that mean that we have to take on all the world’s stress, “all its catastrophes and pain and alienation – even finding room for its terrible weight of greed and hate and fear? … How can you be the stress-free All without embracing every stressful part?”

Harding addresses these questions by looking at four people and their responses to personal and collective suffering.

The first is a Red Cross worker who showed an agony of stress in her voice and on her face. “She could not have cared more. Her involvement was complete, her detachment non-existent”. For Harding, it seemed that her wellbeing and effectiveness were compromised by a lack of access to that “interior Rest … which can not only receive without harm, but also transmute, all the world’s unrest”.

The second is Douglas Harding himself, on first becoming a Seer and discovering that Emptiness which gave “peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden”. He had learned the lesson of absolute detachment, but not yet the lesson of absolute involvement. He writes that his support of famine relief efforts in Bengal, where he was serving at the time (it was 1943), were real, but “uninvolved, detached, cool”.

The third is the Bengali saint and seer Anandamayi Ra, who Harding met at her ashram twenty years later. He remembers her ability to weep alongside a bereaved mother, fully sharing her grief, without losing her own serenity. “She took on the other’s grief by being herself free of grief, just as she took on the other’s face by being herself faceless. Fully to appreciate what this means in practice you have, like Ma, to see steadily Who you are. To get the point you have only to see, right now, how your own Emptiness is empty for these comments on her”. Harding concludes “Anandamayi Ra was neither attached to nor detached from the mother and her grief. She was both. Her message for her devotee, as for me then and ever since that memorable occasion was, I AM YOU”.

The fourth is Mother Teresa who, according to Harding, had “in her own fashion … broken through to confidence in place of fear, love in place of hate, abandon and detachment and surrender in place of craving.” She too had solved the problem of stress by immersion in it, “by being it absolutely and not being it absolutely”.

Harding concludes with three recommendations for day-to-day practice. The first is to “stop playing ostrich” about our own mortality and our collective human vulnerability to catastrophe, including catastrophes we create for ourselves. We have no reason to expect that “our troubles will somehow blow over. They won’t”. The second is to check in regularly with our place of safety – Who we really are, through Harding’s own exercises or some other means. The third, however, is not to get stuck in the Container at the expense of its contents, the world. Harding says that this isn’t a recommendation for moderation, but for extremism, and finding the unique role that best expresses “this truly amazing union of perfect freedom with total involvement … let us remember that living thus, consciously, is the very best thing we can do for our disaster-prone world”.

(1) Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

See also: http://www.headless.org/

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