contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spring

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.

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)

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