contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: stillness

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

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/

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

POEM: IN SILENCE

Be still

Listen to the stones of the wall.

Be silent, they try

To speak your

 

Name.

Listen

To the living walls.

Who are you?

Who

Are you? Whose

Silence are you?

 

Who (be quiet)

Are you (as these stones

Are quiet). Do not

Think of what you are

Still less of

What you may one day be.

Rather

Be what you are (but who?) be

The unthinkable one

You do not know.

 

Oh be still, while

You are still alive,

And all things live around you

Speaking (I do not hear)

To your own being,

Speaking by the Unknown

That is in you and in themselves.

 

“I will try, like them

To be my own silence:

And this is difficult. The whole

World is secretly on fire. The stones

Burn, even the stones

They burn me. How can  man be still or

Listen to all things burning? How can he dare

To sit with them when

All their silence

Is on fire?”

 

Thomas Merton Silence, Joy: A Selection of Writings New York: New Directions, 2018

 

PNEUMA: THE DIVINE BREATH

Some years ago, this phrase suddenly appeared during a breath meditation: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. Meaning has developed gradually. The movement of the breath feels entirely natural, and a comfort to attend to mindfully. Stillness signals another dimension within and behind the movement. In a world like ours, it is a great thing to experience stillness, however fleetingly. There is something healing about it, and it is not dependent on formal meditation. A brief time out can be enough to make a difference.

Going a little deeper has offered more. The quality of stillness cues me in to the ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ experience. From a Sophian standpoint, traditionally a Gnostic one, I think of the Greek word pneuma which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. Gnostic teacher Stephan Hoeller says: “in Gnosticism pneuma is a spark sprung from the divine flame, and by knowing the pneuma the Gnostic automatically knows the spiritual source from whence it has come … to know one’s deepest self is tantamount to knowing God”. (1)

In my discussions of non-duality, I have generally held to non-theistic language, using terms like ‘Awareness’, ‘Being’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘Fullness’, ‘Openness’, ‘Original Nature’, ‘True Nature’ or ‘Tao’. I have avoided ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, though in the context of non-duality all these terms point the same way. Yet I have worked with an Ama-Aima breath and mantra meditation, where Ama is the transcendent aspect of the Divine Mother and Aima the immanent aspect. In the myth of Sophia, Ama-Aima is her name as Mother.

I feel more urgently drawn into the orbit of Sophia. C.G Jung, important to modern Gnosticism as well as analytic psychology, believed that we can find ourselves held – almost possessed – by an image of the Divine that calls to us. The call is from beyond our personal will. How we respond is up to us, with consequences attached to any choice. Gnosticism speaks through intuition, imagination and metaphor: in this current, imagery matters. My image is that of Sophia. It is not new, but it is becoming more vivid.

It is as if everything I have learned on my hitherto eclectic journey needs to be brought together – and that I can best achieve this within a distinctive Sophian Way. My recent post –  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/embodiment-and-at-homeness/ ‎ described an aspect of it even whilst referencing Focusing and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as influences. The essence of this Way is simple. The movement of the breath, and stillness in the breath, properly recognized, open me to the experience of pneuma. Everything else, directly or at a remove, flows from that.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL & Chennai (Madras), India: Quest Books, 2002

 

FINDING PEACE AND HAPPINESS

“The dissolution of the mind’s limitations, which is itself the experience of peace or happiness … takes place momentarily on the fulfilment of a desire, when the mind’s activity of seeking comes briefly to an end, and, as a result the mind plunges into its source and briefly tastes the unconditional peace and inherent fulfilment of its true nature. After this experience of peace or happiness, the mind, on rising again within the ocean of consciousness, usually attributes the fulfilment that it experienced to the object, substance, activity or relationship that preceded it, and therefore seeks the same experience again.

“Although these brief moments give the mind samples of the lasting peace and happiness it desires, they never fully satisfy it. At some point it begins to dawn on the mind that it is seeking peace and happiness in the wrong place. This intuition may occur spontaneously as a result or repeatedly failing to secure happiness in objective experience, or as a result of a moment of despair or hopelessness when the mind, having exhausted the possibilities of finding fulfilment in objective experience, finds itself at a loss and, with no known direction in which to turn, stands open, silent and available. In this availability the mind is receptive to the silent attraction of its innermost being, drawing it backwards, inwards and selfwards, a call that is always present but usually obscured by the clamour of its own seeking.

The unwinding of the mind may also be effected in more extreme moments of great fear, sorrow or loss, when the coherence of the mind is temporarily disturbed, and it is ‘thrown back’ into its original condition, a fact that the Tantric traditions have developed into a series of formal practices in which the mind surfs intense emotion back to the shore of awareness. It can also be brought about by moments of heightened pleasure, such as sexual intimacy, when the mind is expanded beyond its customary confines by the intensity of the experience and, as a result, tastes the nectar of its own immortality.

“In fact, from this perspective, the experience of pleasure, normally the enemy of spiritual realisation in the religious traditions, is considered a taste of pure consciousness. In the moment of aesthetic pleasure, the wandering mind is brought to bear so intimately on the object of perception as to merge with it. In this merging the mind briefly loses its limitations, and in essence of pure consciousness shines. That is the experience of beauty. It is the experience that the artist seeks to evoke, and to which Paul Cezanne referred when he said he wanted to give his art to give people a sense of nature’s eternity.

…..

“This dissolution can also be solicited, invoked or fostered in meditation or prayer; likewise, through a conversation or a passage in a book, through words that are informed by and infused with its silence. Or it may be precipitated by a question such as

“’Are you aware?

“’What is the nature of the one you call I?

“’What is the nature of the knowing with which you know experience?

“Likewise, the mind may be drawn spontaneously into its source of unlimited consciousness simply by the silent presence of a friend in whom the recognition of their true nature has taken place, without the need for conversation.”

Rupert Spira The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter Oxford: Sahaja Press, 2017

KEY WORDS

My very best wishes for 2016 to all readers of this blog. May your year be blessed with peace and loving-kindness.

Like many people I find the change of calendar year a good moment for revising and re-framing what I do. This includes my personal contemplative inquiry.  I remain strongly engaged with my Sophian Way and I am finding means of strengthening it.

At the beginning of contemplative practice I’m now saying: “I open myself to the divine breath: the movement of that breath and the stillness in that breath. I open my heart to the grace of Sophia”.  The key words are breath, movement, stillness, heart, grace and Sophia.

‘Divine breath’ translates the Greek word pneuma which could mean either ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’. It was a favourite with the Gnostics of late antiquity. For me, the divine breath is ordinary breath transformed through practice, awareness and understanding. I feel and taste the knowledge that breath enables life, and that it does so through transcending  the boundary between me and not-me. It allows me an individual life, embodied yet not sealed off. It also connects me to a larger system.

When I follow the movement of the breath, I am  attentive to its inhalation and exhalation. I breathe the cosmos; the cosmos breathes me. The movement of the breath is inherently active, life-giving and relational. There are practices in both Gnosticism and Tantra involving breath exchange with another person which emphasise these aspects of breathing.

The stillness in the breath, in my experience, is held within the movement of the breath. They are not polarised. It is the still point at the heart of being, always present as the activity of breathing is going on. It’s like an inner silence inside a context of sound, or an inner calm inside a context of energetic or emotional arousal. Truly to become open to the divine breath involves a simultaneous awareness of both dimensions.

Opened up to the experience of divine breath (rather than breath awareness as an arbitrary attentional focus) I can open my heart, in the sense offered by Cynthia Bourgeault: “In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception … its purpose is to stay in alignment with the Image of one’s true nature.” (1) Here, the grace of Sophia is Her presence and energy in support of that alignment.

The words cue me in to the experience, though not as a formula, for true contemplative experience is not formulaic. They represent a sensibility of practice, or a culture of practice, rather than a road map. The value of these words, as I continue to use them, will be in what emerges as a result of using them in the coming weeks and months.

 

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2010

 

 

 

USEFULNESS AND EMPTINESS

A re-blogged post about valuing stillness and emptiness within the balance of our lives.

Single Session Therapy

We live in a busy world where we are constantly over-stimulated. We extol the virtues of action; friendship is seen as a benchmark of social identity, and if you believe media hype you are not fully alive and complete as a person unless you are busy with travel, partying or acquisition (preferably all three at the same time).

So we don’t give a lot of thought to stillness and emptiness, preferring the full cup (the one that runneth over, remember?), and a full life.

While it’s true that all these things are important elements in a life, just as a sense of purpose and a feeling of fulfilment are, it can make us overlook the role of space or emptiness. Lao Tsu said that the usefulness in a bowl (or cup), is always in the empty space it contains.

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ABOUT THE ORAN MOR (GREAT SONG)

In my last post, I presented my Amazon review of Jason Kirkey’s The Salmon in the Spring prefaced by his view of the Oran Mor (Great Song), itself somewhat indebted to earlier work by Frank MacKeown.  This followed on from my recent reading of a post involving the Oran Mor by Alison Leigh Lily at Q&A: What is the Song of the World, which I picked up through a reblog on Joanna van der Hoeven’s Down the Forest Path, and reblogged myself on https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/4/2/ . Kirkey essentially sees the Oran Mor as something like the Divine Ground, or the Tao of Chinese mystical philosophy, something that includes all beings whether they be mountains, salmon, humans, midges, wolfhounds, gods or sidhe.

Soon after I read the book I discussed my take on the Oran Mor in a local radio interview, which can now  be found in the OBOD website on http://www.druidry.org/druid-way/other-paths/druidry-dharma/. Those interested can scroll down to AUDIO Druidry & Buddhism Stroud FM 141210.mp3.  At that time I was more involved in Buddhism than I am now, but generally I still stand by the things I said.

Concerning the Oran Mor, I focused on implications for the personal spiritual path rather than wider issues of cosmology. I suggested that we are invited to do three things:

  1. Learn to hear the Song. This is another way of talking about re-enchantment, the beginning of the conscious journey in paths like Druidry.
  2. Find our unique note, or sound, and sing it. Whilst each note is meaningless, indeed impossible, without the Song, the Song is itself dependent on our individual contributions.
  3. Learn to hear the silence behind and within the Song. For without that the Song, in our perception can become just a noise, even if a beautiful one. To awakening to a full awareness and appreciation of the Song, we need the dimension of silence and stillness as well as sound.

I have noticed one strange thing. When interviewed for Stroud FM (and about half-way through the piece), I confidently attributed these last sentiments to Jason Kirkey. But I’ve looked through the book again and I can’t find them there. So it seems to have been my way of inwardly digesting his book and in a sense the emergence of my own note in relation to the Oran Mor itself as concept, image and inspiration. Still, a mystery, and quite startling when I listened to the interview and then went through the text again. My self-image is one of being careful with attributions and acknowledgements. Perhaps that’s why I felt such a strong energetic pull when the Oran Mor was brought to my attention again.

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