contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spirituality

A TAROT CONTEMPLATION

An attentive juggler keeps two coins in the air. As I contemplate the coins, they speak to me of well-being, health, and blessing, rather than every day money. They are coins of a different order, and they draw me into the card.

I was glad to pick the two of pentacles, from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), in my first use of cards for many months. I knew I wanted only one card in the moment of picking it up. The image, when I saw it, gave me the pleasure of recognition, of something about this feeling right for me. A relaxed juggling of no more than two coins seemed spacious and doable. I thought, ‘I can walk into the picture and be the figure on the shore-line. I can put myself into this flow of movement and attention with these coins’.

Now within the image, I notice that I have my back to the sea, and I assume a prior knowledge that the boats are friendly and capable of outrunning bad weather. I experience pentacles as having a protective resonance, so long as I am active in my own protection. I feel that, somehow, my juggling of the coins is a part of that protection, and protects the boats as well. I do not have a story about why this should be the case, but I trust that it is. That is all I need to do.

Bringing myself back into my normal state, I feel trust in my current direction, even though I cannot fully articulate it. I feel trust in my existing resources, of which the Tarot and my ease with it are two. I think about moving between different states of attention, in ways that are spacious and not overloaded. My contemplative inquiry is not now about asking fundamental questions or exploring new avenues. It seems more to be about balance and flow and living from an underlying stillness.

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY JULY 2021

This post updates the description of Contemplative Inquiry, using the text my newly revised ABOUT.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. I began Contemplative Inquiry in August 2012 as part of a project within modern British Druidry. My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. It includes a foreword, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth, by Philip Carr-Gomm, at that time Chosen Chief of OBOD (https://www.druidry.org). There are major contributions in the main text from 14 other Druids offering diverse perspectives on the topic: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

Contemplative Inquiry includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It reaches beyond Druidry into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places. Over time, I have  found an ‘at-homeness’ in the present moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.

“I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. My practice seems to have its own evolving trajectory, whilst drawing on two spiritual families as active points of reference – OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org) and the Eckhart Tolle Community – https://eckharttolle.com/.”

HIGH SUMMER 2021

It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.

At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.

But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.

Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.

Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.

In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.

MUSICAL MEDITATION: THE SHAKUHACHI FLUTE

Shakuhachi flute music is a meditation for players and listeners alike. It is dance of sound and silence, of movement and stillness. Some people call it, ‘blowing Zen’. In this music, a rise and fall of notes gives way to space and stillness, which in turn give way to a rise and fall of notes. Eckhardt Tolle identifies shakuhachi flute music as a portal to the experience of consciousness being conscious of itself – and so a direct realization of what he calls the Deep I.

Bamboo flutes first came to Japan from China in the 7th century CE (1). The current shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the16th century. It is called fuke shakuhachi because of the instrument’s role in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks known as komusu (priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks) who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.

Their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. The monks wore wicker baskets over their heads, as a symbol of their detachment from the world. But the world being the place that it is, it was more like a semi-detachment. Travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate at that time, and the Fuke only got their exemption by agreeing to spy for the authorities and allowing the Shogun to send out his own spies in the guise of Fuke monks. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult shakuhachi pieces became known as tests. If you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished along with the Shogunate itself, and shakuhachi playing was banned for a number of years.

The Wikipedia article on shakuhachi (1) provides information about the instrument and its capabilities, as well as its current international popularity and the formal link with Zen broken.. There is an International Shakuhachi Society which maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur and teaching shakuhachi players.

(1) https://en.wkipedia.org/wiki/Shakuhachi/ (NB This reference gets you to a page where you will need to type in Shakuhachi)

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).

I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.

Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.

Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.

NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple (4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/rowan/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/three-trees/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/mr-bramble/

A PERFECTLY DIVINE MESS

“Bow to your awkwardness. Kneel at the altar of your failures. Smile at your clumsiness. Befriend your incompetence. Laugh when you stumble and fall. These are all perfectly precious waves in the oceanic vastness of you.

“Perfection is unavailable in time, but found only in presence; the presence of imperfection makes you real, and relatable, and that’s perfect. You’ll be consistent when you’re dead. Until then, celebrate your silly old self, your marvelous inability to conform, or to live up to any image at all.

“Don’t bore yourself into a spiritual coma. Say the wrong thing, just for once. There is such freedom in allowing yourself to screw up, to be kind to your mistakes, to kiss the ground as you rise again, to adore the falling too.

“Don’t let your spirituality numb your humanity, your humility, and most important, your sense of humor.”

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

BOOK REVIEW: A STORY WAITING TO PIERCE YOU

Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.

Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.

Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.

Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo –  understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.

Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.

Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”

A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.

(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.

PERCEIVING NATURE

“When you perceive nature only through the mind, through thinking, you cannot sense its aliveness, its beingness. You see the form only and you are unaware of the life within the form – the sacred mystery. Thought reduces nature to a commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit or knowledge or some other utilitarian purpose. The ancient forest becomes timber, the bird a research project, the mountain something to be mined or conquered” (1)

Since the beginning of March I have had a connection with Eckhart Tolle’s community (2). Over the next couple of months I will decide whether to make an ongoing commitment. Part of the process is to identify the points of compatibility with my Druidry so that both may support an integrated spiritual life. The view of nature is one point of compatibility, and there is a link to my sense of contemplative Druidry when Eckhart Tolle says: “When you perceive nature, let there be spaces for no-thought, no mind. When you approach nature, it will respond to you, and participate in the evolution of a human and planetary consciousness.” (1)

(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks: Whispers of Now London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003

(2) https://eckharttolle.com/

MIDSUMMER STASIS 2021: A CELEBRATION

A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.

The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.

The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.

The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.

Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.

There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.

I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

GARDEN VARIETY MINDFULNESS

I’m coming out of an extended period of laboured breathing, loss of voice, and bouts of coughing that didn’t want to stop. I cannot tell whether this represents a recovery or a respite. Medical tests so far have been reassuring, but there are others to come. I do know that the experience, whilst at one level a drain on my energy and attention, has been a teacher of what I am calling garden variety mindfulness.

I have been nudged into taking mindfulness off the meditation stool and into acts of daily living. I am thinking of breathing for the purpose of staying alive: staying present and awake whilst struggling; eating (what, when, how much and how fast or slow); the re-arranging, with negotiation, of living space and how it works; slowing down and paying better attention in all departments. This mindfulness has been the agent of significant practical change.

It does help to keep a formal meditation practice going as well, and for this I am tending to use models from Eckhart Tolle Now (https://eckharttolle.com/), since I am working with them. I am also entering meditational states in emergencies. On occasions when my breathing seemed very compromised, I would experience a raw fear that felt like a healthy body-mind response, but which I also wanted to put space around. Staying with the fear, and keeping it company, the loving awareness of of the Deep-I would wrap itself around the fear and hold it. As loving awareness I would allow the fear its run whilst also showing that I am not defined by any passing event or response to it.

I have also compassionately intervened with distress-laden narratives of helplessness and anticipated doom – constructing ‘my future’ in later life as having an inevitable downhill trajectory. This is an understandable story in the circumstances – and also a limiting and distorted one. I realise that I am more concerned about incapacity than I am about death itself. Death is something I need to face into and make room for.

I have developed a healing visualisation for my scratchy throat. First I pay attend to the felt-sense of scratchiness and become familiar with it. Then I see a cavern like space dotted around with luminous grit. This is gently washed by a liquid light energy that acts to dissolve the grit. I make sure that this liquid covers the grit on the cavern floor but doesn’t fill the cavern space as a whole. The visualisation has had a perceptible effect on the sensations in my throat, as well as contradicting any story of helplessness and being an effective way of paying attention to parts of me that are asking for it.. The whole story of this period, really, is about paying attention.

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