contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Winter Solstice

MIDSUMMER CELEBRATION 2022

The place is called Lower Parting, though it is actually a joining. The parting is 3km (just under two miles) up river. There, the River Severn divides into two channels, east and west, to flow around Alney Island. When taking the picture above, I was standing near the point where the channels meet again. It was around 9 a.m. on 22 June. I had not been there before.

Although every time and place is ultimately sacred, some times and places are easier for me to honour. In my experience this is partly a property of the times and places, partly down to culture and tradition, and partly to do with my own inner and outer availability.

On this occasion, I was within a midsummer period which for me lasts from a day or so before the solstice until around 25 June. I like to acknowledge the stasis (standstill) element within the solstice experience. It is not just about a point of time. Like its midwinter opposite and twin, my midsummer allows an extended pause before the wheel of the year turns. My walk on 22 June was an intentional celebration of the midsummer stasis, something between an outdoor walking meditation and a miniature festival pilgrimage. It was built around my first encounter with an intuited special place, now that I am fit enough once more to walk the required distance.

I can easily understand why people in many parts of the world have seen water, especially flowing water, as sacred. I am on a quiet part of a quiet island in the middle of Gloucester city. The wetland here is blissfully unfit for development, and now a nature reserve. I was able to stand here and look out at the joining of the waters, under a blue sky, and surrender to a benign spirit of place. I didn’t have to attend to my attention. In this extended, flowing, moment, nature was doing that for me. I found, here, a generous horizon, and a living peace that invites participation. I am glad and grateful to have discovered this place on this day.

In my tradition, at every seasonal festival, we are asked to think not only of the time we are celebrating, but also of its opposite. Walking back from Lower Parting, I see features in the landscape that help me. My pictures below do not evoke winter, but they do show light and shade within a single image. On planet Earth, the time of my summer is the time of someone else’s winter. These are both ways in which opposites complement each other in an interconnected world.

A HIDDEN SUN

The sun is there, of course. There could be no picture without it. But this is a moment in my world where the sun is hidden, slow to advance and light up the day. As I continue looking through the window, the mist seems thicker, more dominant than the picture records. I am glad to be warm and in the house. I am glad not to be going out to work. I am glad not to be going out to walk, content with the view through a widow. It looks cold out there. Today, I am willing to let the Mystery be.

But the Mystery takes different forms and I find myself peering into a different unknown. There is another hidden sun, within. Thanks to this interior sun I glimpse a direction for my inquiry after the end of this cycle, as we move beyond midwinter into a new calendar year. First, I see the inquiry continuing, supported by curiosity, wisdom and compassion – three qualities for me to cultivate. Second, I am aware of an emerging question about ‘healing’, and what it means for me at this time in my life and the world’s. I am especially drawn to ways in which healing and contemplation matter to each other, and to senses of healing that are not over-preoccupied with ‘fixing’. Third, I realise that I have already begun gathering resources that can support me in this venture. In a somewhat dreary time, I have just enough light to find my way.

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

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

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

MIDWINTER MORNING

Happy Yule/Winter Solstice/Alban Arthan! A time I experience as an extended movement over two days starting on 21 December. Midwinter doesn’t have to be bleak and barren. This morning, 21 December 2019, I took these pictures to celebrate and contemplate a bright moment in Stroud. A small miracle of blue sky broke through the rain, cloud and gloom.

APPROACHING THE YEAR’S TURN

We have a small patch of garden at the front of our house, remodelled only a week ago. It has a modestly zen pagan reference, with just a hint of spiral. In the bigger picture, where I live, we are rapidly approaching the turn from an inward to an outer arc of life energy. The Winter Solstice is very close.

I’m not experiencing deep stillness this year. It feels more like an extended pause for breath – a time for taking stock and regrouping. 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.

I have checked out older resources which have been neglected for awhile. One of these is the popular and respected Wildwood Tarot. I bought it years ago but didn’t much engage. Now its time has come round, prompted by an impulsive consultation. It happened in the early hours of a recent morning, at a rare time of sleeplessness. I spent several hours getting to know it. Here it is enough to say that I am drawn by its strong wheel of the year orientation, by its choice of imagery for the major trumps in particular, and by its own focus on resiliency.

I am going to live the year from 22 December with heightened attention to the wheel of the year, and with this resource as my companion. My current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it. In the meantime I enjoy the front garden and await the return of the sun.

Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

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