“About 2,000 years ago a very important woman was buried high on Birdlip Hill overlooking Gloucester. This was the time of the Roman invasion and Gloucester’s farmland was turning into a dangerous frontier between the Celtic Britons and the Roman Empire.” The mirror and bowls on display above are part of her grave goods. I used a mirror of my own to read the Gloucester Museum’s information about what has now become an ‘exhibit’.
Naturally enough, people want to know more than this. Stories connect ‘the very important woman’ to Boudicca, whose campaign against the Romans two decades after their initial takeover was well-documented and is well-remembered. But the location and manner of her death after her eventual defeat are not clear and have provided space for all manner of speculation. This gives improbable possibilities a certain amount of traction.
I turn my attention back to the mirror, as the undoubted product of an iron age culture with a wealthy aristocracy who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language. The designs on the back of the mirror (below) reflect the tastes of that culture. To me, they seem almost alive. They give me a tenuous sense of connection with a real person who was in this neighbourhood (and I would guess came from it) 2,000 years ago.
Being connected by place but separated by time is an odd feeling, even more complicated for me than being connected by time and separated by space. I have to be careful not to let my imagination colonise the past. It can be a distorting and invasive mirror. At the same time I do want a relationship with the past. I want to acknowledge it and be open to what it might teach me. In this case, perhaps, a commitment to beauty in a time of turmoil and danger. Or a commitment to different ways of looking, in a world where past and future may not exist in quite the ways that they appear to do.
I’ve been unwell for most of this month so far. But now I seem to be mending, and this is partly due to a dream.
I don’t have deeply healing dreams very often, but when they come they affect my whole bodymind. They don’t require much roof brain interpretation. I find it more important to tune in to shifts under the surface, and intuit guidance there. The dream feels like part of my inquiry, offering itself for contemplation, so I have decided to share it here:
“A grey shadow space, unformed … out of which comes a desire, rightly or wrongly framed as a necessity, for an important encounter. Perhaps a revelatory one.
“Now, the descent into a well-defined yet dark (because night-time) space. I am in a large city, which I know to be coastal. There is someone I have to meet within the next 48 hours. I know their name and neighbourhood, but not their address. I have hope, if not confidence, that I will find them. Nonetheless, I am anxious in this night.
“Walking out in the morning, I feel simple pleasure in being at large in the city. An unfamiliar locality approached from a beach suddenly becomes familiar when I realise that I have been here before from another direction. I am on a wide street, actually an avenue with trees. There are shops and businesses of various kinds on both sides. I could eat anything that the world offers, here.
“Later, still in a flaneur rather than questing mode, I become aware that time is passing, and indeed is running out. But instead of becoming anxious, I remain attentive to the scenes in front of my face. They seem like blessing enough, as long as my openness and attention are engaged.
“Now the scene has shifted again. I am in bed in a room, watching a clock with a severe Gothic face. It is two minutes to the midnight on which my time runs out. Then 10 seconds – (it no longer matters about meeting anyone). Ticking down – the clock becomes simpler and friendlier. I’m curious. At the very end I am relaxed and happy.
“Then I wake up, check out my surroundings, and enjoy the feeling of being blessed with a healing dream. I deeply believe that I am on the road to recovery, whatever recovery turns out to mean.”
Bright Blessings to everyone at the turn of the calendar year. With some fears and greater hopes, I have crossed the threshold into 2022. I have welcomed it into my life and declared myself ready for the journey.
In a way, ‘2022’ is a fiction woven from our human experience of linear time and a cultural decision about numbers. But these things are thoroughly ingrained in me and feel like givens, completely natural. I remember clocking this, or signing up to the tribal custom, in the new year of 1957, when I was 7 years old and found myself remembering 1956 as a full, known year. It was the first time I had been conscious of such a thing. Now I was somewhere new and exciting (1957) though the feel of my bedclothes was familiar in the very dim early morning light. I remember this vividly and, truth be told, better than I remember waking up yesterday.
Flowing water is often used as an image for the passing of linear time. On my walk yesterday morning, I checked this out in nature and made two brief videos of a stream. Standing on the bridge at slightly different times, facing in opposite directions, I filmed a stream flowing both towards me and away from me. My feelings about the two were a little different.
The water coming towards me felt fresh and energised. I was curious about the patterns on the surface both from the flow itself and from the rain. I was drawn in, more meditatively, by the sound. I was also interested in what stories the water might hold. But I didn’t follow these up, out of concern for losing the immediate experience. Above all I, felt invigorated. I enjoyed this flow.
Flowing away was different. It wasn’t raining and I could hear – I think – sea gulls. They are certainly around. Again I enjoyed patterns in the water and the enlivening strength of the flow. But I was strongly aware of it moving away from me. Yes – it was reliably replenished … but for how much longer? And, in any case, a movement away is a movement away. Movements away carry a sense of loss. This isn’t just about my age. It is built into the experience of linear time. Things pass away into a temporal distance. Linear time is the mechanism that allows anything to ‘happen’ at all, but also the guarantor of impermanence. There’s a poignancy in this condition that I allow myself to experience and hold – not, here, seeking comfort in the eternal. I watch the power of a little stream, grateful for the miracle of existence, softly sad about its vulnerable brevity.
After the equinox comes a deepening of autumn. Light, colour, texture – my sense of the world is different. Images of this moment in the year shape my sense of time as well as of place. I savour the turning of the wheel. All time is transitional, yet every time has its own uniqueness.
Contemplating images like this is for me a way of sustaining what modern Druids sometimes call a re-enchantment with and of the world. Simple attention to the living world is a renewing experience, and protects the heart from what can seem like the half-life of a Wasteland culture. Opening to a living cosmos, I plead guilty, with pride, to the charge of Romanticism.
It is after 9 a.m. on Sunday 26 September, Locally I enjoy orange as a colour of ripening, rich and shiny with life, as the season of bearing fruit moves on.
There are trees whose leaves have already turned, but will stay on their branches for awhile, giving these woods a more mixed, autumnal appearance.
But there is still a preponderance of green, some of it surprisingly fresh. Here it provides a canopy of green light and shade.
The season is also asserting a downward pull, towards the earth and dissolution – a process, however, still in its early stages. The broken fence seems almost to be sharing this, beginning a return to the land.
Then there is the undergrowth, with its mix of living and dead wood, living and dead leaves, and the soil that holds them. The evergreen leaves are defiantly vivid. Taking pictures, I celebrate the time of year.
Every process in nature has its season, and its interdependence with other processes and events occurring at the same time. Part of our climate crisis involves the breakdown of long-standing relationships of interdependence. Where I live, the year at least seems, mostly, to move in its time-honoured way, though with an increase in storms and flooding. The flowers of early spring are comforting both in their presence and promise. Yet there are nagging questions about what disruptions the future holds for us, and how soon. This is before I open my awareness to include what other people in other places are already having to deal with.
Such instability impacts my contemplative life. I cannot rely on an externalised ‘nature’ for re-assurance about a world and life that will endure for me, or for beings like me living lives I can recognise. Conceptually, I have always known this, at least since I read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was eleven years old. It opened me up to the full implications of evolution by natural selection, a memorable moment in my education. I can remember sitting in early summer grass absorbing the insight. Now, both context and understanding are different. I am a lot older, in a time where premonitions of decline and fall can be placed in a near rather than remote future.
Yet the wheel of the year continues to move beautifully around the circumference of my circle. The centre is a different space entirely. I name it, in the About section of this blog, as “an at-homeness in the flowing moment”. This phrase comes out of my own experience rather than from the language of the traditions, and it “is not dependent on belief or circumstances, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”. I link this with peace and non-separation from source, a groundless ground though the latter might be.
Over the last year I have been influenced Robert Lanza and Bob Berman’s work on Biocentrism (1,2) discussed at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/03/biocentrism/ – I find myself leaning into their view of a cosmos where space and time are removed as “actual entities rather than subjective, relative and observer-created phenomena” thereby pulling the rug “from the notion that an external world exists within its own independent skeleton”. Such cosmology, not yet on the horizon for the Wells of 1895, makes reality more provisional and more ultimately unknowable than the reality of common sense. But for me, common sense reality is not lessened by being relativised, and I remain very busy with space and time. Rather, it becomes richer and more vivid, and more imbued with possibilities and potentials than my blinkered understanding can readily grasp. My contemplative ‘centre’ (ultimately unboundaried) is paradoxically a setting of peace and happiness – and also one of creativity and hope.
(1) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2009
(2) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2016
I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.
Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.
I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).
But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.
“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.” (3)
Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.
Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.
(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)
(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994
(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968
(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)
On 2 June I enjoyed a simple, senior day. A picture anchors its feeling-tone and will prompt my memory in times to come. On this day, I went nowhere. On this day, I did no inquiring. In this day, I could hardly tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window.
The day was both ordinary and unique, tied to a cherished space and with its own distinctive features. It was the day before the weather broke, the last of a warm, dry and sunny spell that has blessed us during the lockdown. But the break was clearly coming and that, too, would be welcomed.
More importantly, my day was an extended moment of companionship with my wife Elaine (sometimes in separate spaces, sometimes sharing one). In part we were just there. In part I was time conscious, looking forward to Elaine’s coming birthday, not long after my own – and then our relationship anniversary in the coming June days. As the wheel turns, anticipation flavours the now. Memory flavours the now too, and I want to remember this day, and the value of its simple, senior pleasures.
Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”
We have a small patch of garden at the front of our house, remodelled only a week ago. It has a modestly zen pagan reference, with just a hint of spiral. In the bigger picture, where I live, we are rapidly approaching the turn from an inward to an outer arc of life energy. The Winter Solstice is very close.
I’m not experiencing deep stillness this year. It feels more like an extended pause for breath – a time for taking stock and regrouping. I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels.
I have checked out older resources which have been neglected for awhile. One of these is the popular and respected Wildwood Tarot. I bought it years ago but didn’t much engage. Now its time has come round, prompted by an impulsive consultation. It happened in the early hours of a recent morning, at a rare time of sleeplessness. I spent several hours getting to know it. Here it is enough to say that I am drawn by its strong wheel of the year orientation, by its choice of imagery for the major trumps in particular, and by its own focus on resiliency.
I am going to live the year from 22 December with heightened attention to the wheel of the year, and with this resource as my companion. My current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it. In the meantime I enjoy the front garden and await the return of the sun.
Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington
The wheel of the year, particularly now, prompts me to attend to time and the blessings of being time-bound. In John Cowper Powys’ Porius (1), Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin) is an incarnation of Saturn, Cronos, Old Father Time. By the end of the book Porius its main protagonist understands himself as a devotee: “there are many gods; and I have served a great one”. Earlier he reflects on “a delicious human satisfaction, in defiance of so many austere and implacable metaphysicians, in thinking of Time, the alter-ego of crooked-counselling Cronos, as the creator of all the value and beauty there was in Space, if not of Space itself.”
This is directly contrasted with the view of the priest Minnawc Gorsant in the same story. “Upon what great word … does our Christian faith depend? … Eternity! … What eternity destroys – swallows up, rather! – is this contemptible, this miserable, this wretchedly human thing, Time!” Gorsannt goes on to assert that “the human race wasn’t created to be happy, or To be good, or to improve its lot. The human race was created, purely, solely, exclusively, arbitrarily, for the glory of God, and for that alone.”
If there is any meaning in the word eternity, it has proved to be the enabler of time, at least in this universe. Through time I am given life, relationship and agency, however transient they may be. They are the greatest gifts imaginable. If, at times, I also experience them as compromised, then I can look at negative experiences and their roots – physical, psychological, relational, social or ecological. I experience the ‘spiritual’ dimension as living in all of these, not as a separate realm. So distresses and dysfunctions need to be compassionately acknowledged, addressed, perhaps accommodated, perhaps challenged and transformed, at their own level. If I find myself seeing the world (rather than my limited and illusory sense of it) as a prison to bust out of, then something has gone very wrong, because for me there is nowhere else to go.
When I pay attention to the wheel of the year, I experience a day-by-day process where the festivals act as markers. They are not a prime focus, and I have even known them to become another way of being distracted from distraction by distraction. Following the wheel helps me to acknowledge both time and place. Whilst no two years are alike, this way of living in time emphasises the cyclic rather than linear, always with an ebb and flow, a dying away and (where I live, thus far) a promise of renewal.
The effect on me is to slow it down, localise it, and better allow me to discern patterns, rhythms and tides. I find it very suited to an earth-oriented eco-spirituality, and at chosen times it can become a meeting place between stillness and movement. Perception becomes richer and the desire to share this richness becomes stronger. It is a sacrament that collapses the distinction between sacred and secular. It is entirely dependent on time, If Time is a god, it is indeed a “great one”.
(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.