On 1 May I strode out with a spring in step, for my statutory walk. I was stir crazy and determined to meet the day. I made sure to take my camera with me. I wanted both to savour and record the fresh abundance of the green. Although I was in a familiar landscape, both the look and the feel of it had changed. I was in places I hadn’t been in for a week or more, and the world seemed dynamically verdant with a new intensity. I had a transformative hour of it before returning home.
In his Green Man (1), William Anderson reminds us that the Green Man utters life through his mouth. “His words are leaves, the living force of experience … to redeem our thought and our language”. Anderson’s Green Man speaks for the healthy renewing of of our life in and as nature.
He also suggests that the emerging science of ecology – the study of the house-craft of nature – is one such form of utterance. It gives us a language of inquiry into the interdependence of living things. My sense is that 1960’s images of Earth from space have also provided support to concepts like that of a planetary biosphere, and for the revival of Gaia as an honoured name. As a species, quality knowledge, rooted in quality imagination, is our greatest resource. Anderson’s book was published in 1990, based on ideas that had already been maturing over many years. I am sad that we are where we are in 2020. But the message of hope still stands, and the energy of a green May bears witness to it.
(1) William Anderson Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth London & San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)
2020 is beginning its journey from Beltane to Midsummer in my neighbourhood, and I am feeling the call of Awen. Hence the pendant. I am also looking at the theme of balance (1). There’s a question for me about balancing the call of Awen with my commitment to the deep rest of contemplation and its nourishing effects.
As a fruit of my contemplative inquiry, I found ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. This at-homeness nourishes my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that the experienced moment is what is given. Being alive, having experiences, and being aware that I have experiences is an extraordinary set of gifts. But it has taken me a while to find deep rest in simple experiencing, at will.
When I go home to the flowing moment, I slow down the stream of consciousness without attempting either to halt it or to put it to work. A stillness lives within the flow and finds its place there. I experience ‘now’ as state of presence, rather than a unit of time. A pervasive sense of deep rest emerges from ‘just being’. Immersed in being, I can lose my sense of a boundaried, separate self.
But I am also an embodied human, in a perpetual process of becoming, When I hear the call of Awen, I feel as if a larger life is inviting me to share in the magic of creation as a co-creator. It is likely that humans began calling, chanting and music-making before they developed conceptual speech. Awen is close to source, deeply involved in the emergence and flourishing of our collective and personal voices. Gaelic tradition speaks of the Oran Mor as the great song in which all beings have a part.
In this final, dynamic stage of the rising year, I do feel called in this way. My initial response has been to re-incorporate Awen into my practice both as a three-syllable chant (aah-ooo-wen) and as a two-syllable mantra meditation (aah, on the inbreath; wen, on the outbreath). This is already changing the feel of the practice. When chanting this is through the sound, with its distinctive pulse and vibration, and through a strong felt resonance in my body. In the meditation, the awen mantra seems to enliven my breath, making it very real as the breath of life. It also energises my body as a whole, less dramatically but more subtly than the chant. Overall, I sense myself as enlivened, inspired, and activated. Awen is influencing my experience, and my inquiry. I will see where this magic leads me.
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
Sometimes I struggle with language. This struggle is part of my practice upon the Sophian Way. At times I think of it as a distraction, and perhaps a sign of incompetence. I become discouraged. How do I talk about something that can appear to be beyond a tantalising and distant horizon, while also being nothing other than the ground I walk on and the feet that do the walking? How could I ever find a language?
This is the edge of contemplative inquiry. This is the point where contemplation is asked to hold confusion and frustration. I am tempted to write them off as forms of failure or distraction, yet the stand at the heart of the practice. Writing now, I am not reporting on a practice. I am doing it. Sophia is not bought off by a spirituality of easy answers and sweet experiences. She is also not bought off by the line that ‘this is all beyond more words and thinking’, when spoken as a dismissal. That line is true, but it doesn’t let me off the effort of doing what I can to express what I experience. One of my experiences is this very struggle with words.
I once had a self-image that, in the evening of my days, I would be somehow beyond all this. At times I feel I am. In August 2018 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 – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”. At that time I believed that this blog had run its course. I looked forward to a period of “fruitful silence”, and I went on to have one. Essentially I stand by what I said then, about At-Homeness, and healing and grounding in a flowing now. It is an important practical take-away from my inquiry. But no formula stands eternal, or does everything. By April of this year I was writing again.
As I continue my inquiry, I will be asking myself more about the ways in which sensations, feelings, images, intuitions, thoughts, beliefs and self-image, shape my contemplative experience. I think this particularity matters. I, James, am in a different place from Douglas Harding, when he says: “Without God, Douglas would not exist but without Douglas God would have no awareness of Himself. It’s like light and darkness. You don’t have one without the other. But the Ultimate truth is that there is only God “. If I could only fall into line with this language, I would never have to think again. But I wilt in conditions of mono-cultural monologue. For me, it offers meaning at the price of love, energy and wonder, and the price is far too high.
In his own life, Douglas Harding was by no means short of love, energy or wonder, and he used a language that was entirely congruent with his truth. But I am different. I have a different view and I trust my feelings in this. I experience my personhood a valid in its own right, even though largely constructed and deeply enmeshed in wider systems. The cosmos I know expresses itself to me through its generativity and multiplicity. My own experience of the Headless Way experiments has been about losing the sense of a boundaried and separate self in an immersion, and a deep connection …. which I associate with notions of ‘inter-being’, and web of life … and I know that my language isn’t as clear and definite as Harding’s … and that I have different experiences at different times … and change my mind … and continue to struggle with words. I’m also discovering that I’m at peace with this. My inelegant inquiry is held within the flowing now, and forms part of my At-Homeness.
This is my icon of Sophia. The artist is Hrana Janto (1). I call my path a Sophian Way, and the image is emblematic both of the path and the inspiration behind it. At times I wonder whether this name and image are still appropriate. On the whole, I am not focused on deity, gender or celestial realms. If I look within, Sophia dissolves into pure presence at the heart of being, If I look outwards, she dissolves into the web of life. Non-dual awareing removes the need for a cosmic mother, messenger of light, or healer in the heart. Doesn’t it?
And yet …
A young child in me likes this picture very much. He would like to be Sophia’s friend. He senses that she might be the kind of older friend who is also a guide. The whole picture throws open a door to another, more radiant, dimension. He feels relaxed and at home. He loses himself in happiness.
Another part of me, a good bit older, would like to delete the immediately previous paragraph. He wants the post to suggest that the evolution of my inquiry has delegitimatised the Sophian trope, or meme, or whatever word he is reaching for. To be fair to him, his deeper wish is to be in integrity as an inquirer, and to be seen to be so. His intentions are sound, but anxiety and concern to get it right have narrowed his horizons.
A third part, believing in caution, personal privacy and self-compassion, would like to delete both of the last two paragraphs above. He would like to spend more time with the image, and find another approach to talking about it. I can see his point, but I’m not going to take him up this time. The writing process itself has been inquiry in action, belongs on the record, and feels Sophian to me.
(1) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (The image at the top of this post is used with her permission.)
According to my dictionary, one of the meanings of ‘signature’ is, “a distinctive pattern, product, or characteristic by which someone or something can be identified: the chef produced the pate as his signature dish”.
I want to adjust the signature of this blog. I want now to explore the relationship between contemplation and engagement more explicitly. A blog is itself a form of engagement, and this one has so far combined a strong curatorial thread with personal sharing. Now, for me as for many others, a deepening social and ecological crisis asks for a work of preserving existing life-affirming aspects of our culture and developing new ones. I see this work as enhanced by outward-looking forms of contemplation. I want this blog to contribute.
I started this blog as a Druid. My personal path, which I have described more recently as a Sophian Way, has become more Universalist. I have described it as a path of healing, peace and illumination, which encourages a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. Its ‘sacrament of the present moment’ involves resting in a place of underlying stillness, freedom and love within any experience – good experiences, wonderfully, but also bad ones that need active resisting on the ground. For some, this suggests an experience of divine support, or the activation of the divine within us or of the divinity that we truly are. For others it seems to come from a deep wellspring within the psyche that needs no further point of reference. This sacrament is my core practice, to be dropped into at any time. It doesn’t always take a pure form, but it usually makes a difference. In the myth of my own life, it is Sophia’s principal teaching.
At the level of the wider word, I continue to feel a strong sense of alignment with Pagan, Animist, and Earth spiritualities like Druidry – more than to the Buddhist or Gnostic families or to movements like the Headless Way, even though they have given me a lot. Philip Pullman in his The Secret Commonwealth* has a character who says that where we stand revolves around one key question – ‘is the world dead or alive?’ I say ‘alive’ without worrying about scientific definitions or the metaphysics of reality. Something in me just has to say ‘alive’ – alive and interconnected as a web of life. This re-affirmation is important to me, and as a ‘light bulb moment’ on a level with the more seemingly individual aspects of my Sophian Way. I don’t expect to change the blog that much, but there’s enough adjustment of signature here to demand explicit affirmation.
*Philip Pullman The Secret Commonwealth Oxford, David Fickling Books & London, Penguin, 2019 (Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust)
Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.
I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.
In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.
I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.
I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.