contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wheel of Life

SUNSET LATENCY

In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.

The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.

Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.

I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

WELCOMING 2021

Love and blessings to everyone at the threshold of 2021. May we find both nurture and inspiration in the coming year. It comes to us amid multiple crises and disruptions. May we navigate safely through them during the coming months, finding opportunities within the undoubted challenges ahead.

I end 2020, as I began it, in a watery time and place. The picture above, taken after a storm on Christmas Eve, shows a lively flow of water at the gateway. Wellies are needed for anyone wanting to walk on through. This kind of flooding was once rare and has now become normal. (A more traditional after-rain normal is shown in the picture below.) Not far away, buildings were flooded. Since then there has been snow, which has stuck in some parts of our locality and not in others.

In my part of the world, raised levels of wind and flooding, this year and last – and in other years going back for over a decade – are enough to show climate change in action to anyone with their eyes open – though they are less dramatic than events in other parts of the world. There signs that the partly engineered trance of public inattention in much of our public discourse has started to weaken. As the worst of the Covid pandemic comes to an end, I hope that we see more focus to the underlying existential threat of climate change, backed up by levels of action that can make a real difference.

In my last post of 2020, I continue to draw strength from the rhythms and powers of nature, even in their alterations. The strength of a stream rushing into the Stroudwater canal, with the land and the exposed tree trunks all around, lifts my spirits. In 2020, I set out to give prominence to the wheel of the year in my contemplative inquiry, mapping it back into a Druid based spiritual culture. I focused less on the feast days themselves than on the gradual turning of the wheel. A tree mandala, based around sixteen trees, became an important means of supporting this, with the proviso that it is an aid to direct experience. It is not an overwriting of it or a substitute for it.

I am less clear about 2021. My guess is that I will reduce the volume of my blogging, at least for a while, as I have done at times in the past. It will depend on the flow of the year – what themes may be emerging, what else may be happening in my life – which this time I cannot predict. I hope to be safe and I trust that I will continue to be life-loving, beautifully companioned, curious and grateful. I wish all good things, whatever they are for you, to readers of this post.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.

This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “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”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).

At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.

I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.

HOLLY (TINNE) THE TURN

Holly (1) is a vivid, vital plant, and especially so at midwinter with its rich spiky evergreen leaves and its blood red berries. It is not afraid to take a strand in the world. Tradition names it as fiery in nature and it is described as ‘best in the fight’. In Celtic times the wood of the holly was used to fashion spear shafts. Amergin, the warrior bard and shaman who invaded Ireland, links himself to holly when declaring that ‘I am a battle waging spear’ among his many identifications.

Within my mandala of the year (2) holly initiates a major change of energy and direction. The winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, in the life of the land that I live in and in some sense in me. Elder has completed the work of descent into a form of death already signalled by the yew. Now, from 17 December to 7 January, it is for the holly energy to ignite my regenerative potentials and aid my birth into the life of another year.

Holly helps me with its vitality, strength, clarity of direction and balance. My worry this year has been about my own capacity to step up. But now, on 22 December, I feel the first stirrings of renewal. Under the aegis of holly I am in protected space and time. I can draw strength from the holly and regenerate in safety, during an extended holiday sheltered from the world. A blessing, indeed.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

ELDER AGAIN

I am drawn to write again about the elder, the tree of the caileach, or crone (1). In my sixteen tree mandala of the year, it covers the period from 24 November to 16 December. I am writing on the last day, tuning into the image more deeply, open to an intuitive personal response.

I see grief, loss and limitation there, in a face both haunted and haunting. Survival at a price. It is what it is. I see neither the pretence of a good time, nor the shadow of self pity. The tree is alive and bearing fruit – alchemical fruit which is poisonous raw and safe after cooking. Perhaps it is the fruit of severity. In the face of a sacred tree, I see a face of the Goddess – an ageing, winter face, yet one that is strong and indomitable. I see this mirrored outside, and also within. Something in me is like this too.

From about the beginning of November, I have been dealing with a succession of minor health problems, not dangerous, but draining in their cumulative effects. I have had frequent experiences of lethargy and a kind of fog in the brain. I move between fundamental acceptance of the experience I am given, and a pragmatic need to push back. I am working at reduced capacity, I have some frustrations about this, and I am finding a new balance. I am glad to have made the core of my life and practice simple and easy to maintain. For me, simplicity allows focus on what really matters. Focusing on what really matters is what I need to do.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

ELDER (RUIS) ENDING A CYCLE

Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:

“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.

“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.

In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.

(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).

(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

BARE BONES, BARE EXPERIENCE

Trees – at least the deciduous ones – are becoming skeletal in my neighbourhood. But I am grounded, after ‘doing my back in’ last Friday morning. I cannot go out among them and be present for their continuing transitions. Instead, my entry into the winter quarter this year is marked by lessons in bare experience.

During this period I have been able to lie and stand, with an element of clumsy ouchy drama when shifting between the two. I can walk, too, in an impaired and limited way. Today for the first time I can also sit on a chair, provided I don’t stay too long. I do best when I slow down and attend closely to my bodymind and environment as a single gestalt. I find this especially useful when moving. It is also a good alternative to roof brain chatter when I am lying down and not asleep. But I do not attempt to operate this way all the time. It is enough to be able to tune in at will. Distraction and diversion also have their place and I don’t want to fetishise special states of awareness. Awareness is already special.

I feel confirmed in my sense of contemplation, a sacrament of sentience, as a plain attentiveness that holds the apparent world in its embrace. The rest is lifestyle choice. A very stripped down form of experience, such as I am having now, is its own kind of blessing.

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

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