A winter morning walk with the temperature gently rising above freezing. Internally I’m here, now and at home, as the world changes around me. Walking outside becomes a meditation without effort or solemnity.
It feels good to be reminded, on the cusp of a house move, that at-homeness is portable, embracing variety and change. Light dances with shade. Mist gradually disperses into a blue sky. Still images can point to the process of growth, as with the red berries below, which startled me with their vividness when I saw them.
I find it a comforting, simple pleasure to observe the changes in familiar spaces throughout the day and the year. Because I am leaving the locality, I am delighting in the images I take away from this day’s walk – the land, the water, sunlight and mist; a quietly decaying building and its reflection; railway arches, a footbridge over a stream. Soon, a new landscape will take on its own familiarity.
Finally, I am moved by the light and shade on our garden path, such a good way to end a walk.
I will be moving house very soon. This will no longer be the view from my bedroom window. My gaze today is tinged with premature nostalgia.
This gaze shows continuity and slow, gradual change in the world outside. This world wears its winter look, with bare branches and extensive views. At other times of the year, both are covered by foliage. But the solstice darkness has already withdrawn from the mid-afternoon. Today is blessed with strong sunlight and blue sky. The year is turning again, now towards the light.
The house move feels more abrupt. I have lived here for longer than anywhere else in my adult life. Chiefly it has been the hallowed setting for my life with Elaine (1). Whilst living here, I completed my OBOD training, later beginning a self-directed exploration of contemplative Druidry, including a 4 year project within the Druid community (2). For a while, contemplative inquiry – within and beyond Druidry – became the guiding principle of my spirituality. Now it is more like an influential thread within my Druid practice.
I wonder what changes life in another location will make, as Elaine and I continue our journey together. There will be only a limited break from the past. We will be in the same county, though not the same town. But there will be differences too. The psychogeography will be different. The spirits of place will be different. The world beyond our windows will be new.
I was on a train and had reached my destination. Descending onto the platform at 5.30 pm, I found myself in complete darkness. It might as well have been midnight. I understood that winter had come.
The Goddess in her cailleach, or crone, aspect presides over this time. She it is who determines the length and severity of winter. She is also embodied in the dark woman of knowledge who facilitates both death and transformation (1).
In the context of my contemplative inquiry/blog, I am experiencing a process of this kind, seemingly in a minor key. I want to call it ‘hibernation and renewal’, though I cannot predict how it will really be. In any event, I have decided to do no more posting until the new year. What happens then depends on what I am inspired to do at the time. But now is a time for surrender to endarkenment and sleep.
(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.
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.
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)
The appearance of a daffodil in our garden is a delight. Daffodils in early February feel quite different from the iconic Imbolc snowdrops, whose beauty still feels wintry. The solar yellow of the daffodil disrupts my winter habits of mind. The flower is a clearer harbinger of spring in the world’s life and mine. In a number of different ways, I am recovering my belief in movement and change. The daffodil tells me that it is time for a vitalising re-orientation.
A Covid-19 vaccination tomorrow is another event in a new pattern of life and experience. My wife Elaine’s recovery following her recent hospitalisation is another and greater one. Her convalescence is a gradual process and we are still living very carefully. But we are thinking creatively about the new life before us and how best to inhabit it, even whilst living a day at a time.
I notice that I feel more spiritually sensitive and open. I do not know yet where this is going to take me. On the one hand I feel strongly moved by a single flower. On the other, the world of appearances feels dreamlike and provisional. Then there is the vividness of daily life and relationship. A change is happening and I’m not looking for an explanatory language to pigeonhole it, or to make it abstract and safe. For now, I am simply acknowledging a change in mind.
It is the dawning of 18 January 2021. The stark, bare beauty of the trees is set against a promising sky. Is the world beginning to open up? I can see a leaning in to Imbolc in this dawn, and a loosening in the hold of winter as the year moves on.
I cannot run out into this dawn, as I would like. I am in formal isolation, with a home testing kit for Covid-19 winging its way from NHS/Amazon. My symptoms are ambiguous. Covid-19 may not be the cause, but there is a real chance that it might. Meanwhile people in my 70’s age group are about to get vaccinated. Interesting times, for sure.
For me, the best way of addressing this is day at a time, whilst also assessing possible challenges sufficiently to be prepared for them. From a Druid perspective, I am finding the nemeton of my practice circle a tremendous resource. From the beginning of this year I have had both a morning and an evening circle. The former is built around energising myself and affirming both being and world. The second is contemplative, and built around both walking and sitting meditation. Each lasts for about half an hour.
I notice that I draw on Druid (largely OBOD) liturgy (1) , with modifications, quite a lot – for example, the approach to sacred space and use of the Druid prayer. This locates me within a training and community which add strength even at a distance. There are also aspects of practice drawn from other traditions and others which I have developed myself. The package overall retains a basic simplicity. It is a distillation of my contemplative inquiry – in a sense re-telling its unique story twice a day. I am finding this enormously helpful. I am reminded that the journey is what I had hoped it would be. This recognition holds me up, and is a dawning in itself.
The fog has gone now, for the time being. But its memory still clings to me. I can acknowledge its beauty as seen through the window of a warm room. But I would rather not be out there, tasting the fog, breathing it, trying to find my way in a clammy kind of cold. To go out, I wait for another day, with clear light and the effects, however subtle, of the winter sun. What a difference a day makes.
Part of my Druidry is about cultivating dimensions of experience ignored or unvalued in mainstream culture. Practice keeps my connection to them open. Tibetan Buddhists are sky watchers and have the saying; ‘you are the sky; everything else is weather’. This recognition does not erase the fluctuations in our weather, without and within, or our response to them. It does point to a capacity to hold them within a hidden dimension of clarity and stillness.
In the opening days of 2021, I have been taking in the likelihood of another collectively hard year, perhaps harder than 2020 in a different way. Last year I was more hopeful about this year than I am now. I don’t find this easy and I don’t ask myself to. What I can do is find a home in this seemingly unboundaried and seemingly timeless dimension, here called ‘the sky’, without abandoning the day-to-day.
I am the sky, and I hold the weather – fog and sunlight alike.
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/
I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.
I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.
My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.
The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.