contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wheel of the Year

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)

LUGNASADH 2020

Lughnasadh (or Lammas) marks an important moment in my year. I move from a season of ripening to a season of bearing fruit. At the point of transition, both of these processes are happening. My distinction between ‘ripening’ and ‘bearing fruit’ is a soft one, allowing for continuities. But I know a harvest when I see one, and I celebrate it when it comes.

The Celtic fire festivals have a stronger hold on me than the solstices and equinoxes, with the exception of midwinter. I don’t know why this is. The quarter beginning in Samhain is one of dying and regeneration. I am happy to start and end my year in the middle of it: I have moved from the dying of the year to its point of regeneration. But it is the quarters that tell the most compelling story: from the time of dying and regeneration, to one of early growth – and then on to those of ripening and of bearing fruit.

August, though very much a summer month, comes with a withdrawal of light and intensity, very noticeable to me, where I live, in the last ten days of the month. September and October continue this whilst including fine and balmy days. Throughout much of my life, this is the quarter that has especially moved me. All periods have their magic. Compared to its predecessor, the quarter beginning with Lughnasadh has, at least for me, a quality of reduced intensity and greater subtlety.

2020 specifically continues to be odd and unsettling. I have not had my usual summer. I was essentially housebound for four months. I have not left my town since February. My upside, as a contemplative, has been an unseasonable permission to turn inwards. I have refreshed my solo Druid practice and I feel re-grounded in Druid culture.

I have recently crafted three forms of sitting meditation for use within my daily practice: I describe them as Light Body, Living Presence and Wisdom’s House. I will write more fully at a later date. This development marks a return to an older contemplative approach – I have moved away from formal sitting meditations in recent years. Each meditation is based on, or descended from, a practice previously used over a long period. This work has tenacious roots yet happily feels new and fresh. I look forward to its fruits.

Photo by Elaine Knight. See also: https://elaineknight.wordpress.com/

DOG DAYS

The dog days of summer are by reputation hot, sultry and ill-aspected. As high summer becomes late summer, we can fall out of love with the season. We may find ourselves less comfortable than we would like to be, on the edge of storms that may or may not break. Nature can seem rank and overblown. Insect life is busy, in ways not always to our taste.

Yesterday I walked on the banks of our local canal between Stroud and Brimscombe. I had not done this walk since early March. At the height of the Covid crisis, I decided to leave the narrow towpath alone. For a long stretch of time through spring and summer this section of canal and I have gone our separate ways. It was early in the morning and not especially hot. The canal itself gave me my dog days feeling. What I noticed was a wild, rank fecundity, not conventionally photogenic. It is as if the space were resisting the (interrupted) attempts to make it navigable once again, sustainably beneficial to us. A different ecology had established itself. In my feelings, and imagination, the ‘dog days’ energy became a counterpoint to convenience conservation.

I like convenience, and I like walking on the towpath. I respect the restoration project, and the volunteers who are making it happen. I also respect the ever-renewing power of nature. I look at the picture below, where evidence of canal can barely be seen – just a suggestion on the far bank. I reflect that this stretch of water was once deep and wide enough for trows, traditional canal boats used on the Severn and Wye rivers. Brimscombe Port was as far east as they could go. The canal going on to Lechlade had a narrower gauge, and cargo had to be transferred to Thames barges. That early industrial world has long gone. The new development, whilst making inroads, has not yet ocupied this space. In the meantime, nature is free to be inconvenient, and to some people doubtless unsightly, whether we like it or not.

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

WISDOM AT MIDSUMMER

The picture shows the power of sunlight on trees to an observer – me, using my sight and my phone camera. I am not sure what it is like for the trees themselves, but I imagine it to be a positive experience.

This post is about the effects of the same power in my own psychic life. In a personal meditation, “I find myself in a walled garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is a warm and radiant midsummer morning. The full bright sunlight strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming and illuminating each drop as it falls. I can hear the plashing of the fountain, and birdsong a little further off. My bare feet are on the lush grass. The air is sweet. The sun is at my back, recharging my energy, in particular activating the sun in my heart”. From that point, the meditation can continue and deepen in a number of ways.

This  garden is the Garden of Wisdom, the Wisdom of William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1), a poem of 13 four-line verses, where each line covers a week. Though the Green Man has a lover in the spring, Wisdom is named, as Wisdom, in only one verse.

26 Oct-1 Nov:  The reedbeds are flanking in silence the islands

2 Nov–8 Nov: Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits.

9 Nov-15 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, say the Green Man.

16 Nov -22 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

But at the present time of year, the focus is on the transformation of the Green Man himself, his head having been offed between 25 May and 7 June.

8 June – 14 June: Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

15 June-21 June: As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features

22 June -28 June: ‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

29 June – 5 July:  ‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

Late in 2019, I stopped calling my inquiry path a ‘Sophian Way’ and re-centred it in Druidry. It was the right decision, and I have found it very fruitful. But at the psychic, Innerworld level, I have experienced a sense of loss concerning aspects of the Sophian Way, especially the space I called Sophia’s Garden. Now, thankfully, I have found that a simple re-naming as Wisdom’s Garden has been enough to re-integrate it within my current Druid practice. A more specific link with William Anderson’s Pagan, earth-centred poem also helps. Wisdom speaks through the wheel of the year, and acts as a companion and guide within my Druid path, on both the physical and psychic levels. She is also Zoe, the life beyond time, and the Green Man Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. It seems to me that we are both of them. Perhaps that is Wisdom’s secret.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth: London and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

A LITTLE BOOK OF THE GREEN MAN

This post presents a poem and extract from The Little Book of the Green Man by Mike Harding, which includes photographs by the author. Most of the images are from English medieval churches, though two are from Paris and some are from different regions of India, from Nepal and from Borneo.

The book was published in 1998 and is still in print. I recommend it to anyone interested in Green Man imagery.

I am the face in the leaves,

I am the laughter in the forest,

I am the king in the wood.

And I am the blade of grass

That thrusts through the stone-cold clay

At the death of winter.

I am before and I am after,

I am always until the end

I am the face in the forest,

I am the laughter in the leaves.

The following extract describes green men in the ends of pews at Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset, my native county. They were carved in the fifteenth century:

“Unlike many Green Men that are hidden on high in roof bosses or on capitals, the bench ends are close to ground level and would have been immediately on view to everybody entering the church.

“Only in Somerset is this tradition of carved pew-ends so widespread and it would appear that the same carvers worked on a number of churches in the area.

“While I was photographing these images a lady who was in the church arranging flowers came up to me quietly and, making sure that nobody else heard, whispered: ‘It’s nice to see that he’s being accepted again, isn’t it?’”

Mike Harding The Little Book of the Green Man London: Aurum Press, 1998.

AWEN THE SECRET SOUND

“If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you (1) .” When I work with Awen in chanting and meditation, Awen, as a sound, stands for the Oran Mor, “the ancient ‘music behind the world’ that has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions” (2). Awen invites me to immerse myself in its pulse and vibration, and to find a unique note within them.

This note, which in practice may manifest also as a felt sense, image or insight, forms the basis of my individual voice when connected to Awen. If truly connected, it speaks with the tongue that cannot not lie, the words flowing from authentic experience. Provided this condition is met, the voice can make use of my limitations as well as my strengths. It draws on my natural desire to communicate, whilst serving a collective purpose. I am not a specialist in the fields of bardistry or seer-ship, not one of the awenyddion. Awen has guided me down a Druid contemplative path in the form of an open inquiry. It is here that my spiritual energy has been ignited, providing me with a story to live and to tell.

Celtic spirituality has been described as “an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death … a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives, and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying)” (3). It also has an inward pull – to dreams, the Otherworld and back to Source, which is why my practice embraces the physical, psychic and causal domains and the capacity to move between them. I am now clearer about adjusting my inquiry to devote more attention to my journey into later life (4) and its distinctive contexts in nature, culture, place and time.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert). Kabir was a poet-singer and mystic from fifteenth century India. In Indian Vedantic/Tantric culture, OM is the primal originative sound. AUM (so like Awen) is its feminine form, the creative energy or Shakti of the cosmos giving shape and substance to the material world.

(2) Frank MacEowan The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Spirit Wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(3) Frank MacEowan The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/01/a-path-forward/

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.

A PATH FORWARD?

My world is now in full summer, rich in life and growth, palpably drawn towards the solstice moment. Even in the middle of the woods the solar influence is evident, vivifying both light and shade. The power and clarity of midsummer’s day will be balanced by the different energy, conceivably more disturbing, of the midsummer night’s dream.

Sometimes it is easy to see the path behind, but not the one ahead. In the first half of this inquiry year I have refined my personal Druid practice and strengthened my contemplative inquiry. Giving more energy to this blog has helped. I am clear that, whilst not mobilised around deity and devotion, I also do not accept current positivistic science as a complete account of lived experience. I incline to a ‘consciousness first’ view of cosmos because it offers the richest contextualisation of the ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ experience now at the core of my own life. But the map is not the territory, and I have stayed away from adopting this as a doctrine. It feels good to have clarity here, and also to remain appreciatively at ease with other points of view and their protagonists.

My recent awen inquiry has stirred up a range of feelings, thoughts, images and intuitions. I do not see a path ahead very clearly. But I intuit that my future direction may be explicitly age-related, at least to some degree. I had my 71st birthday last week. So now I’m not just 70: I’m ‘in my 70’s’. As a contemplation I am using a passage from James Hillman’s The Force of Character and The Lasting Life (1). As I get to know it better, I will discover what inspiration it offers.

“T. S. Eliot wrote that ‘Old men ought to be explorers’; I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression. According to the brilliant Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, ‘inquiry’ is our nearest equivalent to the Greek alethia (2), … ‘an endeavour … to place us in contact with the naked reality … concealed behind the robes of falsehood.’ Falsehood often wears the robes of commonly accepted truths, the common unconsciousness we share with one another … we must become involved wholeheartedly in the events of ageing. This takes both curiosity and courage. By ‘courage’ I mean letting go of old ideas and letting go to odd ideas, shifting the significance of the events we fear.”

(1) James Hillman The Force of Character and the Lasting Life Milson’s Point, AUS: Random House Australia, 1999

(2) As in alethiometer, for readers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

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