contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spiritual practice

MEDITATION: LIVING PRESENCE

‘Living Presence’ is a sitting meditation customised for my current morning practice. The name is inspired by phrases in my practice liturgy. When casting my circle, having called for peace in the four directions, the below and above, I move to the centre and say: I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. At a later stage in the ritual I use the words: I am the movements of the breath and the stillness in the breath: living presence in a field of living presence, here, now, home.

This meditation is strongly anchored in modern Druid tradition as I follow it. It celebrates a form of animism: ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. It also works, with the same sense of stillness at the centre and movement around the periphery that is wired in to my circle practice.

Closing my eyes, I take a series of long, slow breaths, and anchor myself in the clarity, peace and stillness that I find deep within me. From this centre, engaged and empathetic, yet without becoming immersed or identified, I welcome the stream of experience moving and changing around this core.

To start with, I scan, in turn, my body and senses, my feelings, desires, images, thoughts, and personality patterns. As the myriad varieties of experience pour in, I keep them company, like Rumi when he wrote: “This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Entertain them all. Be grateful for whoever comes. For each has been sent as a guide from beyond” (2).

I, as stillness, am not a transcendent witness, elevated above the experiences that arise. I stay awake with them, in a process of holding and healing. This enacts my declaration that I am both the stillness in the breath and the movements of the breath.

Movement without stillness has vitality but little awareness. Without movement, stillness cannot come fully alive. They are distinct, but not separate. As they emerge in tandem, defining and modifying themselves in relation to each other, stillness infuses movement with its own qualities. In the moment of connection, stillness in not entirely still. It is lovingly relational. Movement thereby gains in peace and clarity, as it responds, and is nourished and illuminated by them. The whole gestalt is Living Presence.

This process models my current understanding of a unity (one meditation, one experience) that includes difference. It enacts my current understanding of non-duality and interbeing, at the level of an intrapsychic contemplative process. I am pleased with the way that this meditation is working so far. Its development has been supported by a number of influences outside Druidry, without my adopting any other system. As well as Kabinski and Rumi I would reference the current ‘mindful self-compassion’ tradition (3), the stance of Focusing, though it is a therapeutic practice and not a meditation (4), and the work of Jeff Foster (5)

(1) Living Presence is a Sufi term. See: Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, Ny: Penguin Putnam, 1992 See also

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/18/rumi-being-human/

(3) https://centerformsc.org/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/05/14/new-directions-focusing/ See also: http://www.focusing.org/ and http://www.focusing.org.uk/

(5) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

A TURNING POINT

On a recent evening I watched lightning, heard thunder, and waited for the rain. It came quickly, fast and hard. It changed my sense of the year. It was as if, at least for some part of me, the blessings of the solstice moment were threatened with cancellation. I remembered autumn and winter last year, and what seemed like relentless wetness. Was our sun kissed respite, itself made strange by Covid-19 and the lockdown, to be so brief?

The wheel of the year, moving through familiar seasons, was once a comfort. Bad things could and did happen. There were big variations from year to year. Yet on a human timescale there seemed to be a pattern. The ritual year told us that nature was reliable within certain limits. The gathering pace of climate change has undermined this perception. In different ways, throughout the globe, the old patterns are being disrupted without settling into new ones – greater changes are to be expected.

The sun will rise at the solstice as it always does. Here in England, I would never have expected to predict the weather of the day. But this year I do feel a raw anxiety about the future. Happily, my at-homeness in the flowing moment is strong enough to hold this anxiety. I accept and welcome it as the experience I am given, mine to live even within the act of resistance itself. Self-compassion and thence a wider compassion arise from this. Yet, as I link my contemplative inquiry to the theme of ageing, I wonder about harvesting and legacy in my own life. Do such notions even make sense?

For the last six months I have rebuilt a specifically Druid practice, restoring the pattern of the circle and four directions, restoring height and depth dimensions, affirming a strong centre. I am working with levels of experience I describe as physical, psychic and causal. I want my spiritual life, which is all my life, to be a coherent witness to my experience and values. In spite of threatening clouds, I remain fired up for this, by an ever rejuvenating sun within, as I approach the decline of the year.

Image from R. J. Stewart’s The Merlin Tarot, illustration by Miranda Grey Aquarian Press, 1992

AWEN THE SECRET SOUND

“If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you (1) .” When I work with Awen in chanting and meditation, Awen, as a sound, stands for the Oran Mor, “the ancient ‘music behind the world’ that has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions” (2). Awen invites me to immerse myself in its pulse and vibration, and to find a unique note within them.

This note, which in practice may manifest also as a felt sense, image or insight, forms the basis of my individual voice when connected to Awen. If truly connected, it speaks with the tongue that cannot not lie, the words flowing from authentic experience. Provided this condition is met, the voice can make use of my limitations as well as my strengths. It draws on my natural desire to communicate, whilst serving a collective purpose. I am not a specialist in the fields of bardistry or seer-ship, not one of the awenyddion. Awen has guided me down a Druid contemplative path in the form of an open inquiry. It is here that my spiritual energy has been ignited, providing me with a story to live and to tell.

Celtic spirituality has been described as “an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death … a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives, and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying)” (3). It also has an inward pull – to dreams, the Otherworld and back to Source, which is why my practice embraces the physical, psychic and causal domains and the capacity to move between them. I am now clearer about adjusting my inquiry to devote more attention to my journey into later life (4) and its distinctive contexts in nature, culture, place and time.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert). Kabir was a poet-singer and mystic from fifteenth century India. In Indian Vedantic/Tantric culture, OM is the primal originative sound. AUM (so like Awen) is its feminine form, the creative energy or Shakti of the cosmos giving shape and substance to the material world.

(2) Frank MacEowan The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Spirit Wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(3) Frank MacEowan The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/01/a-path-forward/

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

THE BUBBLING SOURCE

“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” From Saying 13, Gospel of Thomas (1).

In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua begins to treat Thomas as his peer. Asked by Yeshua “to what would you compare me?”, Thomas has replied, “Master, my mouth could never utter what you are like”. This reply contrasts sharply with Peter’s “you are like a righteous angel” and Matthew’s “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas has understood. He has dropped all his presuppositions and expectations. He has been able to meet Yeshua in living presence, at source. Whoever wrote this text is asking us to emulate Thomas, and therefore his teacher Yeshua. We all come from the same bubbling source, and are invited both to recognise this and live from the place of recognition. Peter and Matthew may remain constrained by limiting traditional narratives, but Thomas has understood, and two other disciples, Salome and Mary, are portrayed as being on the way.

Recently re-reading this story, I was moved by the force of the words ‘bubbling source from which I spring’. I am grateful to Jean-Yves LeLoup’s translation for this, because the standard academic translation speaks of the “bubbling spring that I have tended” (2), which for me lacks power in comparison. ‘Bubbling source from which I spring’ exactly describes my felt sense of ‘living presence’, recognising it in myself. In my formal practice, I work within a circle framework and I quickly grasped that it should be recognised as the power at the centre. Liturgically, I now greet it is ‘the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence’. This feels right and good. It helps that ‘bubbling source’ is not specifically a water image in this translation. I am free to experience it internally, through my act of recognition, as a shift in energy and attention.

I feel as if I have integrated, or perhaps re-integrated, a depth dimension into the practice, and it feels richer. Since the Winter Solstice I have been closely following the wheel of the year. It represents the inheritance and continuing life of my Druidry. In many ways this is a naturalistic undertaking. But I am now powerfully reminded that my existing commitment to the flowing moment as my true home, and out of which these recent insights came, is not simply about living a slowed down time in a conventionally naturalistic sense. It is that – but it also allows the taste of timelessness and the sense of a primordial nature. The Thomas text reminds me of it. That I can recognise it is also partly thanks to my work in recent years with the practices of the Headless Way (3), the Direct Path (4,5), and Jeff Foster’s community (6). Ultimately this primordial nature is no-thing, but as no-thing it becomes everything, I discover a ‘bubbling source’. I seem to have reached a point where I can both integrate this learning and keep simple. Indeed the one seems to lead to the other. I am grateful that it is so.

(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992

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

(4) http://www.rupertspira.com

(5) http://www.greg-goode.com/

(6) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/

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
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