contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Time

AFTER MANY A SUMMER

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)

(5) Aldous Huxley Island Vintage Classics e-book edition (Original publication 1962)

A SIMPLE SENIOR DAY

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.

POEM: FIELD

They will not mesh, the very small and the large.

They will not converge.

On that side of the mirror, flickering fringes –

Superposition, quantum probabilities,

Shimmering light and dark; on this,

Nature has made its choice.

Time, space –

They will not bend both ways at once.

When the little ideas slip into bodies like clothes

They step through the mirror, enter

An irreducible level of noise –

Gravitational decoherence, dependent on mass.

Worlds, how sad we are to leave our dreaming behind.

So lovely we were then, so light, so playful.

But how compelling to have a body. In fact,

Irresistible.

From: Katrina Porteous Edge Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2019

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.”

APPROACHING THE YEAR’S TURN

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 BLESSINGS OF TIME

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.

A NEW WINTER

I’ve been in transit to winter for the last three weeks. Today is the day that I got here. The part of me that senses this movement is aware of only two seasons, summer and winter. There is a debatable zone twice a year, over varying lengths of time depending on events on the ground. I notice that the heavens are less important – sun, moon and stars impact only through the way they look and feel to me, and the way they affect my light. I am not, in this mode, a maker of calculations.

I’m not bringing in cattle for preservation or slaughter, the classic harbinger of Samhain. So I look for other signs. This year’s process began on my visit to Yeovil, where I was born and lived with my parents many decades ago. They are long gone, but I have naturally been thinking about them, and the life that we had there. Our old home is desolate and the picture above is a shop front from the same street. The Unknown sign is from well after my time, presumably once a catchy name for a modest business. Now it too is stripped out and empty, so that I don’t even know what Unknown once meant. This unknown is scripted only as a single word, a fuller story hard to find.

Yet there the sign is – Unknown – on the door, and I cannot help but wonder about it. Imaginatively I entered that door when I took the picture, in the limited sense that I’ve been conscious of it for the last three weeks, and it has flavoured my experience. I knew that I would write about it at some point. I’ve had dreams of disconnection, dislocation and dissolution. They haven’t stimulated anything so gothic as terror, but they have created a low level discombobulation, a sense of the times being out of joint. Two people close to me have had to weather unexpected misfortunes. There has been a theme of grey skies and heavy rain, interspersed though with jewel-like periods of sunshine in the continuing fall.

I recognised the decisive shift to winter when I saw ice today, outside the kitchen door. I embraced winter, and surrendered to it: a simple act of will, as I responded to the sight of ice. To some extent, during today, I have felt, briefly, the reassurance of being in a ‘season’, where the world follows its appointed course. Winter is here. It happens every year. But I still see that bleak door marked Unknown. The much celebrated wheel of the year, with its times and seasons, basis for a bedrock practice in modern Druidry and Paganism, is itself volatile and perceptibly changing. I don’t find much comfort or certainty there. I feel as if I have been woken out of a trance – and am called to a fuller relationship with unknowns and unknowing.

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

URSULA LE GUIN: HYMN TO TIME

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Quoted by Maria Popova in https://www.brainpickings.org/newsletter/

CONTEMPLATING TIME

“The most widely accepted notions about the universe are central to how we view reality. One striking example links birth and death. In the age of faith, religion existed to reassure believers about a higher plane of reality. On this plane, the everyday experience of birth and death was negated. Souls were immortal aspects of being human. Depending on your religion, the soul either went to Heaven, if one were good, after death or existed perpetually in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

“Ironically, science has stuck to these possible scenarios with the universe, even though what science is supposedly famous for is its defeat of religion, or to be more specific, its defeat of metaphysics and the whole notion of a higher plane. If you look closely, the way the universe was born in the big bang and will one day, presumably die, is pure metaphysics. In fact, the big bang and expansion of the universe was first proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest, who was an astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. Many have pointed to the agreement of the big bang view with Biblical accounts in the book of Genesis. Unwittingly, the public that accepts a casual idea about the universe being born and dying is adopting a metaphysical position about human birth and death, not simple, unvarnished, provable facts.

 

…..

“If you drop every model, something surprising happens. They are not needed. For example, you can view your daily life as occurring entirely in the present moment. The present moment is not a clock phenomenon. Clocks measure intervals–seconds, minutes, hours–while the present moment has no interval. It’s always here, endlessly renewing itself, unmeasurable, and fleeting. Because the instant you try to capture it, it’s gone. This implies that the ‘now’ is outside time. It can be defined either as instantaneous or eternal. Both are valid as verbal descriptions but in the end invalid, since the vocabulary of time doesn’t apply to the timeless.

…..

Without settling the vexing questions of “What came before the big bang?” “Where did time originate?” and “What is the timeless like?” we only want to point out that time has no meaning outside a specific frame of reference. There is no “real” time, only models of time constructed in human awareness. Once we realize this simple fact, the capacity to move beyond all models, to truly lose our fear of death, comes alive. The spiritual concept that we were never born and will never die then becomes viable, too.”

Deepak Chopra & Menas Kafatos, discussing their new book in a recent Science and Non-Duality newsletter

 

  • Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos You are the universe: discovering your cosmic self and why it matters Globnet, 2017

 

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