contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spirituality

THE SPACE BETWEEN BREATHS

“When a pendulum swings, there is a fraction of a moment at the end of each swing when the movement stops, before the pendulum starts to swing back. That moment of pause is the madhya, the central still point out of which the pendulum’s movement arises. All movement – whether the swing of an axe, the movement of the breath, or the flow of thought – arises out of such a point of stillness.

“That still point is an open door to the heart of the universe, a place where we can step into the big Consciousness beyond our small consciousness. As the medieval English saint Julian of Norwich wrote, ‘God is at the midpoint between all things’.

“… Such points exist at many different moments. One of these is the pause between sleeping and waking, the moment where we first wake up before we become fully conscious. Another is the moment before a sneeze or at the high point of a yawn. Another is the space between thoughts.” (1)

For Sally Kempton, this is the inner realm that mystics and sages have called the Heart – not the physical heart, or even the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms”. Her recommendation to meditators is to follow the breath, and to enter the madhya in the spaces between the inhalation and the exhalation, and between the exhalation and the inhalation. Focusing on the sound of the breath with a subtle and relaxed attention, we find the gaps and over time, without forcing the process, we find them expanding.

Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It has companioned me for the better part of a decade, and I am grateful for her influence on me as a contemplative practitioner. I do not follow her path of Kashmir Shaivism and the Tantric philosophy that underpins it. But I have always liked her framing of ‘meditation for the love of it’, which I see as a Druid and Pagan friendly approach. I also like the quality of her writing, and many of her practical recommendations.

In the present instance, I have found that the space between breaths is indeed a portal – placing me, in my own language, as ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. My experience is that the discovery of the space between breaths can lead on to a discovery of stillness even within the breath as it rises and falls. Stillness in the breath, co-existent with the movement of the breath, is potentially available at all times. It is largely through Sally Kempton’s work that I learned this lesson, and I am grateful to her for the experience and insight that I have gained.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

RAINMAKER

The story of the Rainmaker, below, is from Hebridean ecologist Alastair McIntosh‘s Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. I will the review the book as a whole in a later post. The story was originally recounted by Richard Wilhelm in the early years of the twentieth century. Wilhelm was a long-term resident in China whose German translation of the I Ching included a foreword by C. G. Jung. McIntosh’s context for the story is a discussion of spiritual groundedness in the application of Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s way of peace and social transformation.

“In the province that surrounded Tsingtao there befell a terrible drought. The grass scorched, the animals were failing, and the people knew that they’d be next. In desperation, they called upon the Protestant missionaries, who came and presumably said their prayers and read their bibles and gave suitably long sermons. No rain.

“So then they called the Catholic missionaries, who came and presumably said Hail Marys and prayed with rosary beans and sprinkled holy water. Still no rain.

“So they called the traditional Taoist and Confucian priests, who came and lit some joss sticks, and set off guns to frighten away the hungry ghosts that presumably had caused the drought. But not a single drop.

“Finally – and interestingly, as the last resort – they called in the Rainmaker. The Rainmaker was a wizened little old man who lived far away. He had to walk a considerable distance from a neighbouring province. ‘What do you need?’ they asked when he arrived.

“’I need nothing,’ he said. ‘Just a hut to go and sit.’

“After three days, there was an unseasonable fall of snow. It melted and relieved the drought. The peasants soon resumed their normal lives. But Richard Wilhelm, being not just any old scholar but a German professor, wanted to know exactly what the little old man had done.

“‘I did nothing,’ said the Rainmaker.

“‘Oh come on,’ said Wilhelm. ‘Was it magic spells, or incantations, or did you just hit lucky that you only had to wait three days?’

“‘None of those,’ he sad honestly.

“‘Well, what was it then?’ demanded the exasperated Wilhelm.

“’It’s like this,’ said the Rainmaker. ‘When I was in my home province, my spirit was in the Tao, the cosmic harmony. But when I got to this province, I found that it no longer was in the Tao.

“’So I went and sat inside the hut, and when my spirit settled back into the Tao, that’s when the clouds began to form.’”

Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2020

EXPERIENCING EARLY SEPTEMBER

Months, and moments within them, have their own atmosphere and meaning for me. I try to indicate these through pictures. Where I live, early September takes us fully into autumn, and the fruiting of the horse chestnut tree (above) is a marker for the transition.

Early in the month, the sun sets a little after 7.30 p.m. and reminds us that the nights are drawing in more quickly. It still seems early for sunset, but I notice that my sense of ‘evening’ is adjusting to a more autumnal perspective. The picture below was taken on September 3rd.

The feeling-tone of this period is not yet equinoctial. Wooded spaces are still vigorously green, still majestic, still imaging what my heart wants more of the world to look like. The light of day remains strong, even though temperatures are characteristically lower. There is a lingering aftertaste of summer at the beginning of the new season.

Nonetheless, it is easy to find muted colours leaning in to decay. These have their own fragile and poignantly fleeting beauty, as the alchemy of the waning year does its work. Early September has a character of its own, to be enjoyed while it lasts, as the wheel continues to turn.

THICH NHAT HANH ON LIVING BEINGS

In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.

“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.

There is vitality in everything.

The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.

“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)

  • To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

A VISION

I look into the emptiness of the hooded one, no longer expecting to see a face or head. I know the hooded one only as the being who ferries me to Wisdom’s Island, each journey an Imramm in itself. That is all. No context or history for the hooded one. Just a tightly delimited contact.

Nevertheless, the question I have carefully not asked is telepathically answered. The voice in my head, which I know to be the voice of the hooded one, tells me: “whatever can be imagined has a form of existence – for better and for worse, as blessing and as curse”.

“Slightly theatrical” I think, as I stand in the rain and, already soaked, scan the sky for thunder. The lake, however, is not especially turbulent. I have no good reason to avoid the crossing. I take my seat. I sense the water getting deeper and see the island drawing nearer. I am committed, now.

The cliffs, usually nominal, rear above me. The path up is not merely steep but slippery. The actual ascent is almost as anxious making as the anticipation. I do not know whether the hooded one is watching me, but I like to think not. I certainly do not look down to check it out.

The woods at the top, a joy to reach, are dense and tangled in a way I have not experienced before. But they readily grant me passage into the sheep pasture beyond them. The sheep look stoical and accepting in the still driving rain.

The door in the wall is, as ever, open. It is good to be in the orchard, even in the rain. I feel warmer and easier inside. I begin to relax. But as I enter Wisdom’s House, I find the interior unlit. I can barely see the mosaic floor or the Rose Chapel opposite. The only light is on the stairs to the Upper Room. I take the hint.

A force like the wind, but subtler, thrusts me into a chair and puts a chalice into my hands. I cannot do other than drink from it, and so I am taken to the deeper interiority of Wisdom’s Garden. I am not an observer here. I become the fountain at the centre, which is the wellspring of the world. Rivers flow from me in each cardinal direction. As this vision fades, I become the tree of life, with roots extending deep into the underworld and branches reaching up to the stars.

Then I become the primal human pair, in an embrace that maintains aspects of union, brings the gift of relationship, and also introduces a new note of separation. At this point I am restored to the everyday world with a heightened, and perhaps more compassionate, sense of its challenges.

None of these images stay with me for long. They flash by with great intensity, leaving a strong imprint in my senses, mind and imagination. It is as if I have visited the place where the rich latency of unbeing starts to be. I see this as a current reality, always and everywhere, with the the journey and its metaphors as a useful aid to awareness. Whatever can be imagined has a form of existence, for better or worse, as blessing or as curse.

NOTE: this vision arose within my ‘wisdom’s house’ meditation practice. See: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

MY DRUID PRAYER

I am fond of the Druid prayer despite my discomfort with petitionary prayer as a genre. This post looks at the prayer and describes a recent reframing for solo use.

The prayer dates back to the eighteenth-century origins of modern Druidry. I first encountered it in 1993 on joining OBOD (1). The custom there is to extend the ‘Grant O God’ opening to include Goddess and Spirit as alternatives.

Grant O God/Goddess/Spirit, your protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of God/Goddess/Spirit and all goodness”.

When using the prayer in group settings I use Goddess as a Pagan statement in a world where most religious movements still lean heavily towards patriarchy. I have noticed that Goddess and Spirit tend to be the preferred options among Druids today, with at least a few people finding time to say God and Goddess. God by himself is somewhat out of fashion.

In most religious movements this petitionary pluralism would likely seem disconcerting, but it is one of the things that I have appreciated in OBOD and Druid culture more widely. At a deeper level, I am not at ease with prayers to higher powers however they are named. I do not find myself standing congruently behind them. I can stay in a gathering and participate, acknowledging the good intentions of the occasion, but I am not 100% there, in the moment of petition.

On the other hand I like the values expressed in the prayer, as it develops from its base-line in hoped-for protection into that quality of strength which leads on to understanding, knowledge, justice, and – through the love of justice – the love of all existences. Protection and strength, as values, are thereby dissociated from ideologies of dominance and submission, or of power-over as the answer to anxieties and problems. Instead, they point to something fuller, where strength becomes the basis for a generous stance in life. The prayer both affirms the web of life and promotes justice within the web. The principles of the prayer call strongly to our own time.

My recent work has made it possible for me to use the prayer in solo practice. The key word is the sense of ‘Oneness’ as an expression of universal interbeing, or connectedness, rather than a singularity or monad: a Oneness (which I am willing to capitalise) that can manifest in ‘no boundary’ experiences yet also has room for the arrival and passing of individuals, collectives and relationships.

I am aware that, within the web, we find built-in elements describable as parasitic and predatory. Sentient life is necessarily stressed. But as a human I can be aware of this and create, of my own volition and with the aid of allies and available cultural resources, a values-based response. For me, the recognition of ‘Oneness’, as I have described it, widens the circle of care. This recognition may begin as intuited or as conceptual. Either way, I find that it changes the breadth and depth of experience – its taste, texture, tone and colouration. The state of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ (2) points me to, and enables, the recognition Oneness in this sense. It opens the way to a form of the Druid prayer that I can fully embrace.

In the recognition of Oneness,

May I find protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of Oneness and all goodness.

In the light of recognition, the phrase ‘May I …’ asks me to take responsibility for my part in the Oneness. In one sense I am small and transient, in another sense timeless and unboundaried. There is something available beyond the little me, and I can affirm an intention in its name.

I notice that this approach to the prayer also reframes ‘goodness’. It loses any after echo of childhood obedience and a child’s hope of reward for being good. Indeed, it is not used here primarily as an ethical term – too vague, for one thing: ethical criteria need to be specified and their implications worked through, as in systems like virtue ethics or Buddhism’s eight-fold path. Although implying an ethics of empathy, this goodness is about flourishing at the personal, relational, collective and universal levels. The point of any ethics is to support this flourishing.

I will use and test this version of the prayer, as part of my inquiry, and see how it works as part of my practice.

(1) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids: http://www.druidry.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/08/10/at-homeness-revisited/

THREE TREES

On recent walks I have been noticing trees in nearby woodland, and becoming aware of how I experience them at this moment in the year. The three tree pictured in this post illustrate my story for later August.

In the first, I saw my first real hint of autumn, as green starts to turn yellow and brown. At this stage, it is a subtle shift affecting only a few trees. But it is a harbinger, like street lights at 8.30 pm.

My liking for this time goes back to my later childhood. It was still summer and I had a lot of freedom. My hay fever was gone. Temperatures were a little down. It was easier for me to spend longer periods out in the sun. I felt at home in my environment. In these precious days, I felt expansive. The world was on my side, and a hopeful place to be in.

In an earlier post (1) I talked about this as being a time of apples in my Innerworld. This is true of my outer world too. I grew up in Somerset, in England, where apples are abundant. It is cider country, and the summer country of Arthurian romance. My home town, Yeovil, is 19 miles from Glastonbury, aka Avalon. When I was small, I was puzzled by injunctions not to take apples from the tree or eat the ones which fell on the ground, though these might possibly be cooked. Only the ones in shops were truly safe. Commerce made them righteous. For me, this got a little mixed up with forbidden fruit story in Genesis 3, since “the tree in the garden” was identified as an apple in our part of the world.

For all the autumnal qualities of this time, it still offers a naturalistic ‘tree of light’ experience if I am open to it. I experience this most when sunlight catches green leaves, especially if they shine from recent rain. I am glad that the metaphor of the tree of light – like those of the tree of life, or world tree – does not remove us far from our experience of the living world. One of my attractions to Druidry is that even its more esoteric, Otherworldly dimension stays loyal to nature.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/18/harvesting-in-mixed-weather/

BREATHING SPACE

“Once it happened that a man was very ill. The illness was that he continually felt that his eyes were popping out and his ears were ringing – continually. By and by he became crazy, because it went on for twenty-four hours a day. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t do his work.

“So, he consulted doctors. One doctor suggested, ‘remove the appendix’, so the appendix was removed, but nothing happened. Another suggested, ‘remove all the teeth’, so all his teeth were removed. Nothing happened; the man simply became old, that’s all. Then somebody suggested that the tonsils should be removed. There are millions of advisors, and if you start listening to all of them, they will kill you. So, his tonsils were removed, but nothing happened. Then he consulted the greatest doctor known.

“The doctor diagnosed, and he said, ‘nothing can be done because the cause cannot be found. At the most you can live six months more. And I must be frank with you, because all that could be done has been done. Now nothing can be done’.

“The man came out of the doctor’s office and thought, ‘if I only have six months to live, then why not live well?’ He was a miser and had never lived, so he ordered the latest and biggest car; he purchased a beautiful bungalow, he ordered thirty suits, he even ordered shirts made to order.

“He went to a tailor who said, ‘thirty-six sleeves, sixteen collar’.

“The man said, ‘no, fifteen, because I always use fifteen’.

“The tailor measured again and said, ‘sixteen!’

“The man said, ‘but I have always used fifteen!’

“The tailor said, ‘Okay then, have it your own way, but I tell you, you will have popping eyes and ringing in the ears!’ And that was the whole cause of his illness!

“You are missing the divine for not very great causes – no! Just a fifteen collar – and the eyes cannot see, they are popping; and the ears cannot hear, they are ringing. The cause of man’s illness is simple, because he is addicted to small things.”

(1) Osho The Mustard Seed: Discourse on the Sayings of Jesus from the Gospel According to Thomas Shaftesbury: Element, 1975

HARVESTING IN MIXED WEATHER

This picture was taken early one morning, at a moment slightly defended from the heat of early August. I was walking through woods to shelter from the sun.

Those days, intense in their moment, have already receded into the past. After a period of somewhat lower temperatures, and of flashes and rumblings in the sky followed by modest rainfall, we found ourselves in a flash flood on Sunday evening. For a relatively brief period, the A46 (a main road, locally) turned into a fast-flowing river not far from our house. Guttering held, but needs attention.

It was as if, following a period of contest, water had succeeded fire as the prevailing element. Now, the situation is less clear cut. But we are in a cooler and wetter place than we were at the beginning of the month. Daylight hours are reducing. We are leaning in to autumn.

During this time I have been busy with my own harvesting. The meditations presented in my last three posts (1) complete a basic repertoire of formal solo practice in my renewed Druidry. I have been fruitfully indoors during both heat wave (beyond my comfort zone) and the return of rain. I have been inwardly focused.

In my own Innerworld wheel of the year, apple presides over the first three weeks or so of the post Lughnasadh/Lammas quarter. Apple, in many traditions, is a Goddess tree, associated with both wisdom and healing (2). It is linked to a visionary ability to see beyond the surface: perceptions grow wiser and the heart sees further than it might otherwise do.

In Irish myth, Lugh was sent to collect apples from a Tree of Light found in the Otherworld. In Britain, after the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was taken by three Celtic goddesses to be healed on the Isle of Avalon (=Island of Apples).

In a more everyday way, my meditations serve the same goals. The timing of my work on them wasn’t exactly planned. But it doesn’t surprise me that my commitment to living the wheel of the year has led to this result.

(1) Links to the meditations:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/09/meditation-living-presence/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/15/meditation-energy-body/

(2) See: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle: Ancient Wisdom from the Greenwood London: Conections, 2003

MEDITATION: ENERGY BODY

This meditation is the last of three formal meditations for regular use in my current Druid practice. It draws on a variety of sources – Druid, Gnostic, Tantric – and accumulated personal experience. I use the term ‘energy’, where others might prefer ‘light’. This is to signal the importance of embodied, felt experience in this work.

I find Energy Body a valuable complement to my Living Presence and Wisdom’s House meditations. The image is from R. J. Stewart’s The Dreampower Tarot. (1)

I sit on a chair, feet on the ground and hands on knees. This meditation has a Kabbalistic Tree of Life frame of reference, and I begin with a short form of crossing practice, using my right hand for the movements. I say,  In the name of Wisdom (hand upwards to top of forehead), Love (hand downwards towards genitals), Justice (to right shoulder), Mercy (across to left shoulder) and Oneness (both hands over heart centre) Awen (chanted as aah-wen). (2)

Closing my eyes, I attend briefly to my body and senses, relaxing into being on the chair. When ready, I send my attention down below my feet, as if dousing for the energies of the deep earth and underworld. I rely primarily on the kinaesthetic sense – warmth, sensations, the pulse and vibration beneath me. Visual images may appear, but this journey is guided by feel.

The earth energy immediately beneath me is strong and relatively quiet, though I do sense the power of familiar organic life at this level. Deeper down, I get a cooler mineral sense. Deeper still, I connect with the heat and highly pressured turmoil of the underworld, as I get closer to the planetary core.

Directing my attention with the breath, I pull up energy from these realms, starting at the fiery volcanic level, and adding elements of the softer, cooler earth energy as I move up. I pull these energies up through my body and a field extending a little beyond it. I notice an energetic mobilisation – heat, tingling, a feeling-tone of energetic arousal, noting specific sensations in different parts of the body. I use the inbreath to raise this energy and the outbreath to distribute it. Eventually, fully enveloped in this active chthonic energy, I allow myself to bathe in it.

When the time is right, I direct my attention upwards. I sense the sky and the celestial realms beyond – the moon, sun and stars – now seeing both day and night skies from my perspective and bringing my visual sense into more prominence overall. I connect with these energies too, sensing and visualising the powers of a universe in motion at the macrocosmic level.

I draw energy into my field of awareness and intention, bringing it in a focused way, laser-like, somewhat in the manner of a lightning flash, down to the crown of my head. From there it zig-zags successively to my left temple, right temple, throat, left shoulder, right shoulder, heart centre, left hip, right hip, genital area, and feet. Here, I visualise a white lightning effect and feel the ignition of these 11 points, the sephira of the Kabbalistic tree of life.

I now sense a merging of the chthonic and celestial energies, and the rejuvenating power and vitality that this brings. When ready, I direct my energy with the breath up the back and down the front of my central channel, behind and then in front of the 5 energy centres found there: feet, genital area, heart centre, throat, crown. This becomes a circuit descending down the front of my body on the exhale and rising up the back of my body on the inhale.

Once this circuit is stabilised, I develop a second one rising up the right side on the inhale and descending down the left side on the exhale, moving past 8 centres: feet, right hip, right shoulder, right temple, crown, left temple, left shoulder, left hip, and feet again. I keep the two circulations going and use them to scan my wellbeing at the energetic level. At this point I might work with individual sephira and their relationships with each other, but such work is not typical within this generic meditation. Commonly, I simply acknowledge them.

For the next stage, I begin to see, as if from outside, a translucent egg-shaped light energy containing me, with its circuits and currents moving of their own volition. Falling back into place, I feel the benefits of being held within this field of light energy, expanding into it and entering a richer identity. Preferably, the field is porous and open to energy exchange with the world beyond. (If necessary, the eggshell can be made solid and impermeable, an adamantine shield). I stay in the experience for as long as feels right, allowing myself to be recharged and rejuvenated.

Finally I allow the porous egg shape to thin and become insubstantial. Boundaries dissolve. Experience can be imaged as an awareness of tiny sparks winking in and out of existence in a vast indigo field. It is a place of freedom and possibility at the threshold of being and unbeing. There is awareness without boundaries, and no localised sense of body. Sensations and perceptions rise and fall.

When the time is right, I return to my normal physical bandwidth and the journey is over. I enter a period of quiet contemplation.

After the meditation, standing in the centre of the circle, I say I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. In the name of Wisdom, Love, Justice, Mercy and Oneness. Awen.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

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

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