contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wheel of the Year

MORE AT HOME: APRIL 2021

I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.

I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”

My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.

That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.

Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.

I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.

Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.

(1) http://jonnyfluffypunk.co.uk/

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

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) https://eckharttolle.com/

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/02/24/who-is-the-goddess-I-pray-to/

TREE MANDALA: BLACKTHORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), blackthorn (ogham, straif) covers 8-30 April, the final twenty-three days before Beltane. It has a beautiful white flower and elegant sharp thorns. I have seen descriptions of the latter as ‘vicious’, but they only hurt us if we invade the blackthorn’s space. The plant is not a triffid. It doesn’t come after us. So I don’t follow the line of tradition that links blackthorn to harsh fate. Blackthorn doesn’t ask to be turned into guardian hedges or crowns of thorn. That is down to our fellow humans.

The picture above comes from my magic year of 2007, happily well documented, when I was much engaged with trees and Druid study. I felt a pull towards blackthorn, more than towards the generality of hawthorn during that period. (I will write about the Glastonbury Thorn, the exception, at Beltane, my last tree mandala with a ‘memory lane’ theme).

I am drawn particularly to the strand of tradition that links blackthorn to powerfully creative magic – for it was long used in the making of wizards’ staffs. The text of The Green Man Oracle (2) suggests that “we have forgotten the magic that lies within us”. Blackthorn in particular has the ability to “foster waking dreams”. The Oracle adds that, “to access this personal magic, we must step away from busy, surface consciousness, and sink deeply into the ever flowing stream of our magical dreams. The ideas, scenes and presences that throng the deepest levels of our understanding require intense listening” Such magic, the Oracle continues, brings a light into the darkest places. For me that would mean just enough light to illuminate them, and not so much as to dazzle them into negation. How otherwise can the denizens of the dark be offered a welcome home if they want it, and in any event a better understanding?

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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

EARLY APRIL ENERGY 2021

April has been called the cruellest month. But I am experiencing a much hoped-for kindness right now. I am expansive and energised. Finally, it feels like spring in my neighbourhood. Spring as it is meant to be.

The natural world is changing, and a tentatively recovering human population is beginning to reclaim the outdoors. Now is a moment for celebrating the life force – nwyfre, viriditas, whatever we may want to call it. I find my own feelings reflected back in the vitality and vigour of the world I see around me.

The greening of the trees, and hence much of my local landscape, has started. I hope for a fuller transformation by Beltane – now less than four weeks away.

There is an abundance of colour in the woods, with the emphasis changing from the delicate blossoms we have already seen to more robust and stronger coloured flowers.

Even entering a built environment, floral energy arches across the paths.

In the animal kingdom, life is stirring too. On the canal, rivers and ponds around me, swans are now pairing and nesting. I hope they have another good year.

It almost hurts to know that life – so fleeting and variable – can be so good.

WHERE THE LIGHT GETS IN

The pot belongs to my wife Elaine*, and used to live outdoors. Late in the winter it filled with rain. Then there were days of frost and the water turned into ice. The ice needed more room, and pushed against the sides of the pot. When the ice melted the pot fell apart in two neat halves. Nature in action, over time.

As part of her work, Elaine knows something about kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery”. This treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Culturally, the approach is an aspect of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Elaine’s repair, applying kintsugi, is literally illuminated.

The result reminds me of the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.

“Forget your perfect offering.

“There is a crack in everything.

“That’s where the light gets in.”

After some hesitation, I added my Tibetan bells to the picture above. The cord attaching the two bells is about half its original length due to wear and tear. But the bells still ring. My ownership of them, here and now, is almost certainly the result of Tibet’s collective disaster and the resultant Tibetan diaspora. In the world of biological life and time, disaster and repair are a common theme. If the crack is where the light gets in, the work of repair is sacred.

*See https://elaineknight.wordpress.com

TREE MANDALA: WILLOW

I walk past these willows and they awaken my joy in natural beauty. Their full splendour may yet be to come, but they are already abundant with new life and growth. I am lifted by the promise that’s in them.

In my mandala of the year (1), willow presides over period from 17 March to 7 April. Working with trees in my Druid training, I developed a close contact with a willow near to where I then lived in Bristol. I also made a willow wand, from a dead branch I found lying around in another part of town.

In the course of this work I developed a sense of willow that does not exactly match our inherited lore. My records tell me that my main personal impressions concerning willow were of “resilience and generativity” and of “vibrancy in early spring”. Those impressions still stand. I don’t link myself so much to associations with the dark side of the moon (and moon goddess) or the many uses of wicker.

I do make connections between willow and the energy of water, and I can know of willow as a portal to gently magical experiences. Below, I offer a digitised picture of my Bristol tree, taken on 21 March 2007, and an account of time spent with it that afternoon. I enjoy the chance to share this fourteen year old memory, and bring a small piece of my personal Druid history into the present. Intentional reminiscence can be a deeply satisfying here-and-now experience.

“This afternoon I went out to see the trees – beautiful sunshine. The willow I’ve connected with looked very willowy – buds, leaves, catkins. It seemed solid, vibrant, pulsing. Leaning against the trunk from shoulder to hip, I sensed a resonance connected to the contact. Tuning in, I began to make a sound. The note that developed was light and optimistic, but strong enough fully to reach me in the belly. It had a potency that surprised me. I felt carefree, I could take in the cool equinoctial breeze with the warm equinoctial sun and enjoy a moment of holy idleness after a time of rushing around and work.”

I avoid talking about this experience in the language of relationship with the tree, though part of me would like to. I do not know what it is like to be a willow tree, but I am sure it is like something. I know of no way to check in with the tree that allows it to contradict my own precious intimations of communion, should it want to. I suspect that it barely noticed me. Yet the experience felt healing, and I have never forgotten it.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

ILLUSTRATED THOUGHT FOR NOW

“Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You cannot pin it down and say, ‘Now I have it, or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky. It has no form. It is space; it is stillness, the sweetness of Being and infinitely more than these words, which are only pointers. When you are able to sense it directly within yourself, it deepens. So when you appreciate something simple – a sound, a sight, a touch – when you see beauty, when you feel living kindness toward another, sense the inner spaciousness that is the source and background to that experience.”

Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

SPRING CLARITY

Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.

The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.

On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).

‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.

When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..

(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

(2) http://www.headless.org/

TREE MANDALA: ASH AND IVY

Within my mandala of the year (1) Ash and Ivy together are part of a playful period extending to midsummer. The picture above holds memories of the year 2007, when the original photograph was taken in a wood near Bristol. It has recently been digitised and stylised by Elaine Knight, a frequent companion in my adventures with trees during that year.

I was enthusiastically connecting with them at the time, spurred on by an OBOD course (see http://www.druidry.org). My main focus was on being present in the presence of the living trees and connecting with them. I had a secondary concern with information about them. This includes traditional lore now often linked to the ogham alphabet. In that alphabet, ivy is gort and ash is nuin.

In my personal mandala of the year, ash and ivy preside from 23 February to 16 March. Ivy, as ever, is luxurious and abundant. Ash, at this time, is mostly tall and sleepy. I have a strong memory of finding them together as I walked up a tangled, sloping path. I felt an immediate connection with them, which I recorded at the time, though I hardly needed to. The occasion has stayed vividly in my mind ever since. Indeed the wish to celebrate that memory prompted me to include them in my tree mandala when it developed a year or so later.

In ogham lore, ash is connected with themes of rootedness and endurance (2). An ash can bear weight and absorb shocks. It has been the second most popular tree, after hawthorn, for planting at holy wells. It has also been a popular choice for maypoles. In the northern, Viking, tradition, it is Yggdrasil, world tree and wisdom steed of Odin. It links underworld, earth and heaven. It links macrocosm to microcosm, and the inner and outer worlds.

Ivy embodies the strength that can come from seeking support, whilst also being associated with poetry and intoxication. Its spiralling, labyrinthine dance turns both inwards and outwards. Ivy is a tenacious plant, skilled in binding and attachment. It is said also to connect us with our own inner resources, giving us “the ability to see through the eyes of the soul beyond the material world” (3).

I am fascinated by the way in which we can read the characteristics of our own hearts and imaginations into the life of trees whilst also connecting with their independent existence and what it can teach us about, for example, interdependence, a slower rhythm of life or the simple miracle of being. When among trees, I am taken up with the life of the tree on its own terms, more than with either botanical knowledge or inherited mythologies pointing to a larger life. It is when I am away from them that I turn fruitfully to their role in the collective imagination. There are different kinds of attention in play here, and I find that it helps to be aware of the difference without doing too far in disentanglement.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

 

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

TIME, SEASON AND TIMELESSNESS

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

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