contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spring

SUMMER’S GATEWAY 2021

For me, 2021 has been a testing year so far. Part of the test has been a cold, wet and hesitant spring – very different from the tantalising splendour of 2020 and the first lockdown. But this morning, 19 May, I had two hours of what I most love in the transition from spring into summer. It was a refreshing and healing experience to be in the woods, hard to describe in words. I am letting pictures do most of the work.

The woodland I walk in is hardly pristine. It grows in a long-disused railway cutting, now refashioned into a cycle track. At this time of year, and throughout the summer, it is wonderfully green and vital. Here, in this early stage, it feels especially fresh and alive.

Although it is limited in size and partly defined by a path, there is enough room in this little domain for both a tangle wood effect and for a spacious carpet of wild garlic among the trees.

Since I was very young, hawthorn and cow parsley have been a feature of this time, in woods and hedgerows. I was pleased at their presence today, and glad to be able to show up and be present for them.

The overall effect was one of exuberant abundance, a life that will declare its power and beauty given any chance. I will give the last image to the hawthorn.

TREE MANDALA: BLACKTHORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), blackthorn (ogham, straif) covers 8-30 April, the final twenty-three days before Beltane. It has a beautiful white flower and elegant sharp thorns. I have seen descriptions of the latter as ‘vicious’, but they only hurt us if we invade the blackthorn’s space. The plant is not a triffid. It doesn’t come after us. So I don’t follow the line of tradition that links blackthorn to harsh fate. Blackthorn doesn’t ask to be turned into guardian hedges or crowns of thorn. That is down to our fellow humans.

The picture above comes from my magic year of 2007, happily well documented, when I was much engaged with trees and Druid study. I felt a pull towards blackthorn, more than towards the generality of hawthorn during that period. (I will write about the Glastonbury Thorn, the exception, at Beltane, my last tree mandala with a ‘memory lane’ theme).

I am drawn particularly to the strand of tradition that links blackthorn to powerfully creative magic – for it was long used in the making of wizards’ staffs. The text of The Green Man Oracle (2) suggests that “we have forgotten the magic that lies within us”. Blackthorn in particular has the ability to “foster waking dreams”. The Oracle adds that, “to access this personal magic, we must step away from busy, surface consciousness, and sink deeply into the ever flowing stream of our magical dreams. The ideas, scenes and presences that throng the deepest levels of our understanding require intense listening” Such magic, the Oracle continues, brings a light into the darkest places. For me that would mean just enough light to illuminate them, and not so much as to dazzle them into negation. How otherwise can the denizens of the dark be offered a welcome home if they want it, and in any event a better understanding?

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. 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 Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

TREE MANDALA: WILLOW

I walk past these willows and they awaken my joy in natural beauty. Their full splendour may yet be to come, but they are already abundant with new life and growth. I am lifted by the promise that’s in them.

In my mandala of the year (1), willow presides over period from 17 March to 7 April. Working with trees in my Druid training, I developed a close contact with a willow near to where I then lived in Bristol. I also made a willow wand, from a dead branch I found lying around in another part of town.

In the course of this work I developed a sense of willow that does not exactly match our inherited lore. My records tell me that my main personal impressions concerning willow were of “resilience and generativity” and of “vibrancy in early spring”. Those impressions still stand. I don’t link myself so much to associations with the dark side of the moon (and moon goddess) or the many uses of wicker.

I do make connections between willow and the energy of water, and I can know of willow as a portal to gently magical experiences. Below, I offer a digitised picture of my Bristol tree, taken on 21 March 2007, and an account of time spent with it that afternoon. I enjoy the chance to share this fourteen year old memory, and bring a small piece of my personal Druid history into the present. Intentional reminiscence can be a deeply satisfying here-and-now experience.

“This afternoon I went out to see the trees – beautiful sunshine. The willow I’ve connected with looked very willowy – buds, leaves, catkins. It seemed solid, vibrant, pulsing. Leaning against the trunk from shoulder to hip, I sensed a resonance connected to the contact. Tuning in, I began to make a sound. The note that developed was light and optimistic, but strong enough fully to reach me in the belly. It had a potency that surprised me. I felt carefree, I could take in the cool equinoctial breeze with the warm equinoctial sun and enjoy a moment of holy idleness after a time of rushing around and work.”

I avoid talking about this experience in the language of relationship with the tree, though part of me would like to. I do not know what it is like to be a willow tree, but I am sure it is like something. I know of no way to check in with the tree that allows it to contradict my own precious intimations of communion, should it want to. I suspect that it barely noticed me. Yet the experience felt healing, and I have never forgotten it.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

ILLUSTRATED THOUGHT FOR NOW

“Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You cannot pin it down and say, ‘Now I have it, or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky. It has no form. It is space; it is stillness, the sweetness of Being and infinitely more than these words, which are only pointers. When you are able to sense it directly within yourself, it deepens. So when you appreciate something simple – a sound, a sight, a touch – when you see beauty, when you feel living kindness toward another, sense the inner spaciousness that is the source and background to that experience.”

Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

SPRING CLARITY

Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.

The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.

On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).

‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.

When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..

(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

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

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

CHANGE IN MIND

The appearance of a daffodil in our garden is a delight. Daffodils in early February feel quite different from the iconic Imbolc snowdrops, whose beauty still feels wintry. The solar yellow of the daffodil disrupts my winter habits of mind. The flower is a clearer harbinger of spring in the world’s life and mine. In a number of different ways, I am recovering my belief in movement and change. The daffodil tells me that it is time for a vitalising re-orientation.

A Covid-19 vaccination tomorrow is another event in a new pattern of life and experience. My wife Elaine’s recovery following her recent hospitalisation is another and greater one. Her convalescence is a gradual process and we are still living very carefully. But we are thinking creatively about the new life before us and how best to inhabit it, even whilst living a day at a time.

I notice that I feel more spiritually sensitive and open. I do not know yet where this is going to take me. On the one hand I feel strongly moved by a single flower. On the other, the world of appearances feels dreamlike and provisional. Then there is the vividness of daily life and relationship. A change is happening and I’m not looking for an explanatory language to pigeonhole it, or to make it abstract and safe. For now, I am simply acknowledging a change in mind.

BIRCH: NEW BEGINNINGS

Within my mandala of the year (1) Birch – Beith in the Irish ogham alphabet (2) – is the first tree for the spring quarter beginning at Imbolc. The overall theme of this quarter, in my world, is one of early growth. Birch presides from 1-22 February and will become one of the first trees to flower in spring, from March onwards. It is also one of the first trees to colonise new ground.

In ogham lore Birch is understood to support new beginnings and to encourage careful preparation, a skilful laying of the ground on which we will build. “In making your spiritual journey with this tree as your guide, remember to concentrate your mind on the uplifting slender whiteness of the tree, a whiteness that stands out clearly from the tangled undergrowth and confusion of shrubs and thorny bushes that cover the floor and, hence, may inhibit an easy journey” (3). The Green Man’s wisdom (1) is that a good beginning leads to a good conclusion.

In runic tradition (4), where Birch (Beorc, Berkana) is also linked to new beginnings, there is specific reference to the young Goddess, sexuality and birth, as well as beauty and creativity more generally. Birch may signal a laying aside of old patterns, whether merely redundant or positively toxic, and a willingness to welcome new, more energising and nourishing ways of being.

For me, this is a welcome shift from the necessary defensiveness and protectiveness of alder. This year, it comes just at the moment where such a shift is possible – as my wife Elaine continues her recovery from major illness and we begin to dream and think our way forward, into a new cycle of life. The wheel turns, and there is a promise of positive change in the air.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

(4) Sweyn Plowright The Rune Primer: a Down to Earth Guide to the Runes Rune-Net, 2006

LIVING PRESENCE

In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.

My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.

The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.

For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.

My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.

(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

IMAGES OF LOCK-DOWN

I am still going for walks, though not every day, and not for so long. The pictures I am sharing are from Tuesday 24 March, with a new social reality now firmly in place. The road above is the A46, running through Rodborough Parish into Stroud Town. The time is late morning. Normally, it takes a far greater volume of traffic, including much heavier traffic, than it was built for. It is frequently gridlocked. There are too few crossings, and it is a real obstacle for pedestrians. A mile or so away, close to a large Tesco supermarket, we find a roundabout where much the same could usually be said. Not any more.

Walking right across the middle of the roundabout with ease, I went on to Stratford Park, one of the town’s great amenities. The Museum in the Park in particular is a major cultural hub.

When I got here, I experienced a change of mood. I’d been enjoying the state of the roads. It felt like a holiday. I wish I lived in a world of much lighter traffic. But the museum notice was sobering. I had a real sense of loss.

The park itself felt surreal. It wasn’t quite deserted. There were a few people like me, now careful in keeping a distance from each other, in some cases wryly smiling or gesturing a friendly sense of shared plight in our manoeuvres of avoidance. Major features in the park, like the orangery, and the trees behind it, had an aura of lonely magnificence. The human element was dwarfed.

Entering the orangery, I felt sad that the flower beds laid out there won’t be seen by many people this year. In this bright, sunny day, they were stunning.

This walk was the first on which I felt less relaxed about being out – a little on guard and wary. I was somewhat reassured by the built and cultivated environment I was in. It hadn’t changed and in some ways was easier to enjoy, with fewer people, greatly reduced traffic and little obvious busyness. The people I encountered were clearly doing their best. But I was also conscious that this is an early stage in a process that has a long way to go. There was surface tranquillity on a beautiful spring day. But I was uneasily aware of a great deal going on that I didn’t see, in the many houses I passed by, and which my camera hasn’t captured.

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