“The precipice represents our dilemma as human beings, the sense that this existence is all too random, all too absurd. Is there order? Is there a force directing things? These are the important issues, so important that we cannot rely on scripture, but must instead explore on our own.
“The followers of the Tao compare the void to a valley. A valley is void, yet it is productive and positive. The emptiness of the valley permits water to accumulate for plants. It allows life-giving sunlight to flood its surface. Its openness gives comfort to people and animals alike. The void should not be frightening. Rather, it contains all possibilities. Peer into it, call out, not just with your voice but with your whole being. If your cry is deep and sincere, an echo is sure to return. This is the affirmation of our existence, the affirmation that we are on the right path. With that encouragement, we can continue our lives and explorations. Then the void is not frightening, but a constant companion.”
Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992
As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.
My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.
Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.
My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.
The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …
… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …
… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …
These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.