contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

TREE, GODDESS AND SERPENT

Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

3: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage

BOOK REVIEW: WHEN A PAGAN PRAYS

Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.

I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at least in part because of the author’s decision not to make retrospective changes to early chapters in which this “somewhat agnostic Druid took an academic interest in prayer” and had not yet found that this “wasn’t going to work”. The shift came when she began an experimental practice and stayed with it long enough for it to bear fruit. She was helped by Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of how prayer affects us: “when love and compassion are present in us, and we send those outwards, then that is truly prayer”. This allowed a move away from an originally limited framing of prayer as petitionary prayer to named Deity/Deities) into something more spacious and allowing. As a Druid, she was also partly influenced by the idea of kami – the spirits or phenomena revered in Japanese Shinto. As spirits of the elements in nature, or ancestors, or animals, creationary forces in the universe, part of nature and not separate from it, such beings seemed on a scale approachable through attunement, potentially available for conversation.

At night and on the edge of sleep, the author decided to see what happened when she opened her heart and sought peace with herself. She wasn’t seeking “grace or purity”, but “wholeness, wellness, connection”. Prayer became “an act of opening awareness”, of being open to the numinous, open to the divine. She stood before the unknown, holding her mind in a state of readiness, not expecting coherence, in a place that is perhaps beyond both doubt and belief. And she was thus willing, both to say “my prayer has had real and discernable effects for me” and that “this proves nothing”. In the end she says: “there are aspects of being that cannot be usefully discussed in terms of ‘realness’. That may be where the gods live”. A voice that at first has been buried, and then emerged in a hesitant way, can now celebrate re-connecting with the felt numinosity of early life, able to let go of the “defensive rationalism” that for a time played a necessary role.

The rational voice, the first voice, still has its place. This book isn’t all personal story. It considers the nature of prayer, the ethics of prayer, the social functions of prayer, and practicalities of prayer. It looks at the relationships between prayer and ritual, prayer and magic, and the idea of life itself as prayer if lived prayerfully. The author thinks through prayer as a concept (or set of related concepts), and its context, and how most effectively and ethically to pray. This voice too is an honest voice. It does not make assumptions, or hypnotise the reader into agreement. We are asked to think and reflect. In the end, the first voice becomes the servant of the second. It’s questioning both demands and enables the integrity of the author’s personal experiment in prayer. The resulting fruits of practice, and the conclusions of the book, are owed to the presence of both voices, and the author’s willingness to be loyal to them both through a time when they were as yet unreconciled.

ACTIVE IMAGINATION

For some while most of my meditation has been about cultivating awareness in the here-and-now, somewhat in the manner now widely packaged as ‘mindfulness’. But it wasn’t always so. Over my life as a whole, I’ve had more investment in meditations that explore inner world imagery. These include the contemplation of still images (like Tarot trumps), OBOD’s sacred grove practice, visualisations involving journeys and encounters, and active imagination – Jung’s name for spontaneous and meaningful ‘daydreams’.

A little while ago I had such a daydream, and it got me wondering whether this kind of experience will again find a place in my life. It was during the day, in high summer. But I had a powerful and compelling image of a late twilight, lit by a near full moon, well into the autumn. I was standing in an altered, or stylised, version of a real place. I was at the edge of a park in Bristol (although it was wilder in the vision) overlooking the Bristol Avon. My eyes turned left, and I could see a more primitive version of the Clifton suspension bridge, a small city of lights in what is now Clifton on the far bank of the river, and the vague shape of the gorge. I was standing by a willow tree (a real one, with which I have had a connection for many years). I was approached by an androgynous young person, clearly a messenger from the city of lights visible above me on the Clifton side. And I was invited to remember that in this scene I am everything that I can imagine, or I would not be imagining it.

So over time I have become the wild park, the tree, deep twilight, the moon, the river, the bridge, the gorge, the city of lights, the messenger and the message. I can make a story about them all and interpret it. The symbolism is archetypal and so in a sense obvious enough. But I’ve held off doing too much of that. I’m more concerned with the power and suggestiveness of the individual images. Overall, I take it as a declaration that my active imagination channel is open, with a strong sense that I should allow the images their spontaneity and not turn this into a formal practice. I already have a formal practice, and it is fine as it is. This is something different.

CONTEMPLATION AND SHAMANISM

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (1) says:

 By concentrating your vital breath as if numinous, the myriad things will all be contained within you.

The word translated as ‘numinous’ is ‘shen’. And it shows the contemplative Taoist’s debt to China’s long tradition of shamanism. For shen can also refer to the external spirits or numina of mountains, rivers or ancestors, “the powers that descended into early Chinese shamans and shamanesses during their ritualized trances”.

Harold Roth (the translator of Inward Training into English) also points out that this text does not use a word for ‘emptiness’. Instead, it uses a metaphor – ‘cleaning out the lodging place of the numinous’. This is suggestive of either an external temple being cleansed in preparation for the descent of a divinity or the purification of a shaman in preparation for serving as a medium. Roth quotes A. C. Graham (2) as suggesting “that the meditation practised privately and recommended to rulers as an Arcanum of government descends directly from the trance of the professional shaman”.

The Indian story is somewhat similar, according to Mircea Eliade (3): most Indian spiritual practice inherits the structure of early shamanistic culture. He reminds us that the shamanic tree has seven, nine or sixteen steps, each symbolising a heaven, and climbing it is the equivalent of ascending the cosmic tree or pillar. Then he goes on to say, “The Brahmanic sacrificer mounts to heaven by ritually climbing a ladder; the Buddha ascends the cosmos by symbolically traversing the seven heavens; the Buddhist yogin, through meditation, realizes an ascent whose nature is completely spiritual. Typologically, all these acts share the same structure: each on its own plane indicates a particular way of transcending the profane world and attaining to the world of the gods, or Being or the Absolute. The one great difference between them and the shamanic experience of ascent to heaven lies in the intensity of the latter: … the shamanic experience includes ecstasy and trance”.

It seems to me that early images of an antlered sitter – on a seal from Mohenjodaro, the ancient city state of India, and on the Gundestrop cauldron (4) – are equally appropriate to vatic trance, walking-between-the-worlds and contemplative meditation. Indeed is perhaps anachronistic to make such distinctions, for we know little about actual practices in their cultures of origin.  What we can say is that contemplative and shamanistic traditions share the same roots and that modern practitioners – like Druids! – may stand to gain from exploring both at the same time.  The Tibetan Bon tradition has adopted this approach for many centuries, as Tenzin Wangal Rinpoche shows when looking as the five elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen (the contemplative aspect), brought together as a unified developmental system within the Bon path.

References:

 1: Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

 

‘SELVING’

For me, ‘self’ is a vulnerable, unstable, temporary construct – yet one we are still programmed to develop, and as real as anything in the apparent world.  Speaking for ‘myself’ I might put it like this: arising from a chaos of confused and contradictory perceptions, needs and desires; easily stressed and distressed, prone to distorted assessments of the world and my place in it, the process of ‘selving’ is nonetheless a necessary personal and social skill. For better and for worse, it makes me human.

So I’m not a fully paid up subscriber to the view of ‘self’ as simply a misguided idea (though I do go along with ‘no separate self’). But I can value the pure version of the no-self approach as an occasional lens to use. A good look can yield valuable insights.  The radical non-dualist writer J. Jennifer Matthews shows how:

“‘Selving’ is a misunderstanding which causes us to problematize our experience. As soon as we postulate an independent and closed self, we start to bother ourselves.

“Allow me to speak for myself. I have been possessed by a kind of madness. This madness takes shape as a definite tendency to fixate on a person or way of life as my salvation. I abandon the ordinary; the day-to-day. I go for the highest, the most intense experiences, which allow me the most special and rarefied self-images. I reject what is right in front of me, and situate passionate dedication into the receding future.

“Oh alienating desire, that poison of the mind, which makes my friends’ faces foreign; the blue sky dull, food tasteless, and my passions mere shades, however fervently I pursue them! When I am in this particular, er, frame of mind, I keep trying to get to the part of the story where the heartache stops, as Gordon Lightfoot would say. And when I finally manage to stop this, or to use my favourite phrase, when I finally ‘start stopping’ here is the mystery. Right here.

“These crows cawing outside my window, have they always been here? And what about this rain, making soft riplets in the puddles on the walk?”

J. Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just as you are

CHANT

The hour when minute by minute
The colours are stolen away
When red goes brown and black
And green goes grey

The simple twilight-falling hour
The twinkle hour the dewdrop minute
When the hare with a scuffle is gone
Through long grass with a forked twig in it,

When thrush drops down
Last loud chirrup and jig
From the alder top bare
Lo then is the time of calling and taking,
Of mating, and the enlarging of mind into mind,
When the eye thinks and the light stays behind.

Chant by Philip Ross Nichols Prophet, Priest and King: the poetry of Philip Ross Nichols, edited and introduced by Jay Ramsay Oak Tree Press, 1989. Ross Nichols – ‘Nuinn’ – founded the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) in 1964.

‘DRUID CONTEMPLATIVE VOICES': THE BOOK

‘Druid Contemplative Voices’ is a book project in which I have brought together 15 people with an active, practitioner interest in Druidry and contemplative practice. This post is to introduce the book and share something about working methods, ethics concerning participants and their contributions, and the context of the work.

The book is largely based on a set of questions (answered in live interviews or through written responses). These explore people’s links with Druidry and other traditions and the role of meditation and other contemplative practices in their lives. They also look at the potential advantages of such practices for the wider Druid movement. This part of the project is almost complete. The last two contributions are due by the end of this month.

I am adopting a themed approach for the writing, rather than presenting a succession of individual contributions. While this book has no pretensions to be academic, I have started to analyse the material and identify themes in a way combines a certain intellectual formality with an intuitive tuning in to what is emerging. I have some background, including a PhD about transition into later life, in ‘qualitative’ health and social research. Qualitative, here, means research focused on people’s own sense of their lived experience – and this can include ‘insider’ research (where I am part of part of the group under consideration). Although the context and relationships here are different, I find this discipline helpful. Far from being an abstracting and alienating process, it keeps me alert and in integrity.

I am writing the book and responsible for its content, but everyone else will have a chance to look at the text and comment before it is published. Where they are directly quoted (which will be a lot and at length, in the approach I am using) participants will need to be satisfied that I am presenting their contributions accurately and in context – and that they are still happy to stand behind them in print. If not they can be amended (within a timeframe) or withdrawn. The book will also include two appendices drawn from early threads in the life of the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group. In this case I sought, and gained, positive specific permission from each contributor to these threads before going ahead.

Druid contemplative voices is the latest stage of the ‘contemplative exploration’ launched in the OBOD* magazine Touchstone in April 2012. Connections made through the article led to a ‘contemplative exploration’ day in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England on 7 July 2102. The Contemplative Druidry Facebook group was launched on 1 August 2012, and this blog http://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com on 28 August of that year. In each case, one of their aims has been to champion the contemplative meme within Druidry and support the wider contemplative exploration. By the beginning of 2014 an expanded local group in Stroud had a regular meeting cycle of two full days each year (in May and November) with shorter monthly meetings in between. 11 of the contributors to the book have been involved in this group. Druid Contemplative Voices will include an appendix that looks at the group’s structural frameworks and programmes.

*Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids

NB This I am blogging a day early, ahead of Druid Camp.

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

THE EYE OF CONTEMPLATION

In the middle of the ninth century the Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena got into trouble with the leaders of his church. He publicly opposed St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). He called them “a most cruel and stupid madness”.

John lived in France, working for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks. John’s role was to superintend the palace school and to translate rare Greek texts. Although a layman, he had been educated in an Irish monastic school – the Irish monastic schools at the time being among the very few places in Western Europe where Greek was still taught. He countered the Augustinian orthodoxy with the Neo-Platonist argument that ultimately God, the One, must necessarily contain everyone and everything, or not be the One. His arguments were dismissed, in an interesting choice of calumny, as “pultes Scottorum” (Gaelic porridge – since ‘Scotus’ then referred to a language group rather than a place). Nonetheless he stuck to his position, under the protection of his king, and managed to avoid obeying a summons to Rome to explain himself.

John makes a somewhat pointed statement about the spirit of contemplation versus a certain kind of activism in his Homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John. As I read it, Peter founded the church in Rome is identified with the papacy, whereas John Scotus is modelling himself on the gospel writer. “Peter is always presented as the model of faith and action, while John portrays the type of contemplation and knowledge. The one indeed leans on the bosom of the Lord, which is the sacrament of contemplation, while the other often hesitates, which is the symbol of restless action. For the execution of divine commands, before it becomes habitual, may shatter the pure brilliance of virtue and fall short in its judgements, clouded by the fog of sense-bound thinking. The keenness of profoundest contemplation, on the other hand, once it has perceived the countenance of the truth, neither hesitates, nor slips, nor is darkened by any cloud”. In a sense contemplation becomes a quiet resistance: resistance supported by a way of stillness and insight.

(This story is told in Christopher Bamford’s (2000) The voice of the eagle: the heart of Celtic Christianity: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the Gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisifarne Books (New translation, with reflections and commentary. Foreword by Thomas Moore.) the book was published in 2000 and there is a Kindle edition.

THE ROSE SANCTUARY

It is two years since the Stroud based Druid ‘contemplative’ group first met. On 7 July 2012 six Druids met for a day of meditation and personal sharing in sacred space and began a tradition in which 16 people are now involved. As reported in an earlier post (‘A Brief and Luminous Tea Time’, 15 January 2014) we currently have monthly meetings, mostly for two hours on the second Tuesday of the month. In two months – May and November – we meet for a whole day, so far always on a Saturday. We had 11 people on 10 May this year.

Today was one of our Tuesday meetings, held in a dedicated space called the Rose Sanctuary, a new environment for us. We sat there through a summer storm, seeing flashes of lightning through the windows, hearing the thunder rolling in the distance, and then listening to the rain falling on the roof – first hard, then soft. The scene outside, insofar as it was visible, was lush and glistening, albeit a little dusky for the time of day. Inside, the space was one of elegant simplicity, a natural container for contemplation and reflective sharing.

There were seven of us present, two from the original group and five others who have joined since. The group reconstitutes itself at each meeting, building its culture a little more each time, developing its sense of what a Druid contemplative group looks and feels like. This time we began with an extended check-in and a five minute shared silence for attunement, rather than a long meditation. Then we chanted together, finding our shared resonance and the resonance of the space, sensing the pulse and vibration of the Awen in this place and time. We entered a period of intermixed silence and creative sharing, which this time included song, chanting, and accounts of numinous experiences in both outer and inner worlds. Every meeting finds its own note.

For me, it felt like a good second anniversary.

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