contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Winter

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/

SIMPLE BLESSINGS

The entry into December is not all about dying and withdrawal. Nature is more nuanced than that. For me, the scene above is full of an early winter vitality. It is just after 8 am on 1 December, and the temperature three degrees (37.4 F) – cool and bracing. The stream is in rippling movement, full of vitality. The plant realm may be in a relatively austere phase, but there is green in the picture too. This is my first extended walk for some weeks and I find it an instant mood changer. I can immerse myself gladly in the spirit of this place at this time.

When I reach the canal path, I notice the difference in the water. It is slower and quieter, a place of slightly opaque reflections and relative stillness. I like seeing it in the context of a larger picture, that includes buildings, tree tops and sky. There are people too, though not many. In this picture a lone jogger is moving away from me and will soon be out of my sight. I continue to celebrate the day.

Skeletal trees seem like sculptures, artfully presenting themselves against a background of blue sky. “See the web of life in us”, they seem to say.

Meanwhile a willow, at other times the epitome of elegance, allows itself to relax in the off season. Even now, it has not entirely lost its green.

Further up the canal I see a family of swans. There are five in all, four of them visible above. They are moving swiftly and I feel blessed to get an image. The cygnets are more or less grown up, with their turn to a white adult plumage almost complete. I am pleased to see them doing so well and surprised that the family is still together. I imagine that will change soon enough.

I enjoy the way that leafless trees are only partially screening the houses, allowing both trees and houses to be in the picture. The houses are there, part of the current canal ecology. I don’t need them to be hidden. I continue to enjoy the nature/culture balance of this neighbourhood, and I am glad to be out in it. Some aspects of life can seem hard, but others are easy. Today is easy, a day for easy delight.

 

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.

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/

PATTERNS OF MIND

William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1) describes winter branches as like “veins in the brain” making “patterns of mind” on the sky. This is the bleak beauty I see through my bedroom window. Anderson uses imagery of this kind to affirm an aspect of his Green Man’s identity.

“I am thought of all plants”, says the Green Man.

“I am thought of all plants”, says he.

I am experiencing a beautiful bleakness right now, grounded, lethargic, and shut away from the world – yet keenly sensitive to “patterns of mind”, or rather bodymind. As I wrote in my last post (2) I strained my back two weeks ago, without any obvious triggering event, and have only just recovered my normal mobility. My recovery process has been slower, with more setbacks, than similar processes in the past, in part I am sure as a consequence of ageing. My sleeping patterns have been disrupted and not well calibrated to times of night and day. Within a weatherperson’s ‘dry spell’ on Wednesday, I found that simply being able to leave the house and sweep leaves off a garden path gave me a great sense of pleasure and accomplishment. I began to feel confident of recovery, and my recovery has gathered pace from that time.

At the same time, I believe there is a larger context for my sense of vulnerability to stresses and strains. My contemplative life is centrally about giving myself to the flowing moment, as living presence in a field of living presence. The moment holds everything. If the Green Man is ‘thought of all plants’, we as humans hold the life of the world, and its collective stresses and strains, within our extended sensitivities. At the personal level I ask myself, how much can I hold? Intuitively I answer that I am already holding more, like it or not, than I allow myself to realise. ‘Can’ doesn’t come into it. I speak from a place, individually, of relative safety and security, for which I am very grateful. But this personal life is only part of the story. I am involved, too, in a larger life. My current vulnerabilities have their own unique features, and also reflect the vulnerabilities of the world. I don’t feel alone in this experience. I believe that I share it with many other people, each with their own story about how it presents itself.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990. See:

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/11/10/bare-bones-bare-experience/

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.

THE YEW AT SAMHAIN 2020

In my tree mandala of the year (1), yew is my Samhain tree, and to a large extent my November tree. It is an obvious choice, as I leave a quarter concerned with autumn and bearing fruit and enter one of winter and the dying of the year. Regeneration too, but that is some way off.

I admire the power and longevity of the yew, and am in some ways drawn to its energy. But I do not find the relationship easy. I can find it spiky and obscurely demanding. I can find myself resistant to the sensed demand. The alignment of tree and season alerts me to my own mortality and creates space for a reflective moment. But this year I’ve been alert to my mortality for much of the time. In reaction, at Samhain 2020, I feel naturally sluggish and drowsy. Something in me is happy to go down into the dark without too much awareness. Let the dying of the year be the dying of the year, it whispers. Just let it happen. Just let me go down into the dark and sleep.

The Green Man Tree Oracle (2) links the yew with perseverance, for ‘perseverance leads to achievement’. Right now I’m not much interested in achievement, but I notice that I can think of perseverance in another way. This has to do with sticking with the experience that presents itself, rather than life-coaching my way out of it.

I have been working with an intensified wheel of the year for the last 45 weeks. I have seen how easy it is to impose impose conventional or surface-willed patterns on my experience. The seasonal structure is real. I see, feel, hear, taste and smell it manifesting itself in the apparent world as the wheel turns. But the idea of the wheel still has the power to displace lived experience through formalised words, images and expectations. Perseverance on the path asks for two things, I think. One is permission to let go of any sense of project or practice when it loses authenticity. The other is to be truly sensitive and discriminating when I’m happy to be awake.

(1) 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/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

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

A NEW WINTER

I’ve been in transit to winter for the last three weeks. Today is the day that I got here. The part of me that senses this movement is aware of only two seasons, summer and winter. There is a debatable zone twice a year, over varying lengths of time depending on events on the ground. I notice that the heavens are less important – sun, moon and stars impact only through the way they look and feel to me, and the way they affect my light. I am not, in this mode, a maker of calculations.

I’m not bringing in cattle for preservation or slaughter, the classic harbinger of Samhain. So I look for other signs. This year’s process began on my visit to Yeovil, where I was born and lived with my parents many decades ago. They are long gone, but I have naturally been thinking about them, and the life that we had there. Our old home is desolate and the picture above is a shop front from the same street. The Unknown sign is from well after my time, presumably once a catchy name for a modest business. Now it too is stripped out and empty, so that I don’t even know what Unknown once meant. This unknown is scripted only as a single word, a fuller story hard to find.

Yet there the sign is – Unknown – on the door, and I cannot help but wonder about it. Imaginatively I entered that door when I took the picture, in the limited sense that I’ve been conscious of it for the last three weeks, and it has flavoured my experience. I knew that I would write about it at some point. I’ve had dreams of disconnection, dislocation and dissolution. They haven’t stimulated anything so gothic as terror, but they have created a low level discombobulation, a sense of the times being out of joint. Two people close to me have had to weather unexpected misfortunes. There has been a theme of grey skies and heavy rain, interspersed though with jewel-like periods of sunshine in the continuing fall.

I recognised the decisive shift to winter when I saw ice today, outside the kitchen door. I embraced winter, and surrendered to it: a simple act of will, as I responded to the sight of ice. To some extent, during today, I have felt, briefly, the reassurance of being in a ‘season’, where the world follows its appointed course. Winter is here. It happens every year. But I still see that bleak door marked Unknown. The much celebrated wheel of the year, with its times and seasons, basis for a bedrock practice in modern Druidry and Paganism, is itself volatile and perceptibly changing. I don’t find much comfort or certainty there. I feel as if I have been woken out of a trance – and am called to a fuller relationship with unknowns and unknowing.

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