contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

A BRIEF AND LUMINOUS TEA TIME

Last March I talked about a Druid contemplative day in Gloucestershire, England, and the way in which “our meeting grew out of the still simplicity of the space and our shared contemplative intent”. We now have a regular group, which meets for two hours in the afternoon on the second Tuesday of every month, except for May and November.  In those months we meet for a full Saturday, sometime after the festivals of Beltane and Samhain. These days offer an introduction to new members, and also attract people from outside our local catchment area.  Sixteen people are now at least provisionally involved, about half of whom attend our Tuesday sessions.

I feel very blessed to have a group of ‘like intent’ for contemplative practice.  It supports and extends my solo practice, without simply replicating it at a collective level.  I feel recognised and nurtured by the presence of fellow travellers and the strength of a commonly held intent.  I also feel more confident in my note and in the value of sounding it

Our Tuesday pm gatherings – which do include a slot for tea and cake as a very English soul food – have so far had a very simple structure.  We have a personal check in, make an unfussy entry into sacred space and sit in meditation together for about 20 minutes. After that (and this is the Druid bit) we tune into our individual and relational presence within awen. Traditionally awen has connotations of divine inspiration, especially in the fields of poetry, music and prophecy. For modern Druids awen can be also seen as the manifestation of the immanent divine, the breath of the Goddess (Shakti, Shekinah), the enlivening presence of spirit or more simply the way in which space can be palpably and numinously enlivened by people of like intent.

In terms of the practice, we discover ourselves, touched or inspired by awen, in an enlivened relational field with each other, as well as in the space and within ourselves.  Sometimes we share it in silence and sometimes we are moved to speak, finding an authentic here-and-now language for our felt sense of connection. I can see a possibility of moving on to other expressions of this connection – chanting, toning and movement as the group develops.  The practice is open-ended, but tends to go on for 35-40 minutes.

We then exit sacred space, celebrating and also grounding ourselves with tea and cake.   These meetings have prompted me into a greater intentionality about my wider inquiry, which includes sharing it through this blog.

CONTEMPLATIVE DAY

A small group in Gloucestershire, England, mostly with Druid backgrounds, held a contemplative day yesterday, on Saturday 16 March. Most of us were local, but we also had members from further afield including (for the first time) London.

Once gathered, we spent some of our time together indoors and part of it alone, walking in neighbouring woods and fields.  For this outside time we caught a beautiful sunlit spring interlude in the later morning.  We had periods of silence, periods of chanting, periods of talking and periods of eating.  (The day included a magical shared lunch).

I loved it when, early on, JJ talked of our connection as based on ‘like intent’ rather than ‘like mindedness’.  It felt to me very much as if our meeting grew out of the still simplicity of the space and our shared contemplative intent.

I think that this approach to a contemplative day, together with our previous one which had more focus on weaving our stories, are good ways to go in developing  these events.  I look forward to more of them.

WILLOW

Some systems of training – R.J. Stewart in ‘The Way of Merlin’ and the OBOD Ovate Course for example – ask us to develop a long term relationship with a specific tree.  In my case it was a willow.  At that time I had already made a willow wand from wood that had fallen off another tree, and though I don’t use wands or other tools much in circle casting, I do use this wand occasionally.  It’s a wood that I find it easy to connect with.

My willow stands on the banks of the Avon at Bristol, in sight of the Clifton suspension bridge and the gorge.  I was living within walking distance of it at the time.  In terms of ‘head knowledge’ I wasn’t quite sure whether it was technically a weeping willow or a hybrid and decided it didn’t matter.  Its branches certainly bowed to the flowing Avon water and to the ground.  Through dedicated tree hugging practice I discovered a strong Nwyfre  or life force, running up and down the tree.  This was about the time of the Spring Equinox in a prematurely warm and burgeoning year.  I had the pleasure of watching catkins and early leaves growing and of active bees.  So I created an energetic bond with the physical tree, at the edge of a public park, greeting it and fare-welling it at each encounter without developing a detailed botanical knowledge.

I also did inner work with the tree, through visualization.  Usually the visualization was an idealized version of the physical reality, prompting a slightly different set of feelings and reflections.  There was one major difference.  During a gale, the wind broke one of the major branches from the tree.  I was very distressed to see that branch partly on the ground and partly hanging on to the rest of the tree by thin strands of bark.  Then the branch got chopped off.  I was in mourning.  Yet my visualization didn’t change.  At that level, the tree was still there and whole.  And in fact the physical changed and grew new branches, not in quite the same place, to fill the gap of the big one that had gone.  I supplied the distress and mourning.  The tree simply adapted.  Throughout the physical process, I felt little difference in its energy.

In the back of my mind I was also aware of traditional knowledge, both specific to Ogam lore and the more diffuse inheritance of popular tradition.  I tended to hold this lightly, feeling imaginatively enriched whilst putting personal lived experience first.  I do know that leaning against the tree whilst looking across the water to the bridge and the gorge were (and are) good for refreshment, reverie and lazy, half conscious forms of reflection.  Out of this can come a creativity that doesn’t come from the willed marshaling of correspondences.  And to be fair, the traditional willow correspondences say as much, when they talk of openness and receptivity to Otherworld and the inspiration of the Goddess.  When I first knew the willow, it was at a time of fecundity – I’ve already mentioned the vibrancy of catkins and new leaves, the early appearance of bees.  So I’m not surprised that William Anderson’s green man poem says, for the period running from 13 April to 10 May:

 In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that in the Romanian Gypsy Festival of Green George (needless to say on 23 April)  a young and leafy willow, already felled, is erected and decorated with streamers and ribbons.  The community’s pregnant women gather around the tree, each laying out one piece of clothing.  If, overnight a leaf falls from the tree on to the clothing, it is said that the goddess of the tree promises both an easy delivery and a gifted child.”

Such associations are in the background of my relationship to Willow if not the foreground.  They touch my imagination, especially the parts that are nurtured by a sense of place and of history.  They amplify my direct here-and-now experience, adding emotional texture to sensory immediacy.  They extend what’s already there, in the tree, the setting, my presence, and our connection.

ENTERING SILENCE

Sometimes, as over the turn of the year, I feel like blogging fairly frequently.  At other times, like now, I don’t.  I’m still integrating my work with the Ceile De paidirean (beads) and fuinn (chants).  It takes a while.  I suspect that I’m entering a quiet period.

Yet as I do so I want to say a little bit about what contemplative practice means to me now. Centring in silence is the essence of the practice. In sitting meditation I enter silence with a contemplative intent. The process is one of self-emptying, but not in a self-wounding spirit of renunciation, of holy war on ‘ego’, of pushing away the immature self-sense like an unwanted child.

Self-emptying is simply the will to let things come and go without grabbing on, making room for something else to be.  Warmly spacious, it invites a more expansive way of being.  We do not let go in order to get something better.  The letting go is itself the something better, freeing us from our habitual self-protectiveness and contracted activities like taking, defending, hoarding, and clinging. For this reason Cynthia Bourgeault talks of ‘kenosis’ (self-emptying) as “primarily a visionary tool rather than a moral one; its primary purpose is to cleanse the lens of perception”*. 

Having said that, I am finding that the contemplative shift into self-emptying does tend to open up states of acceptance (including self-acceptance), gratitude, peace, joy and love.  They come in and are present, just naturally there, not in any way willed or dutiful, some of the time. They come and go, while contemplation remains centred in stillness and silence, and “looks at the world through a single lens of wholeness”*. 

 

* The meaning of Mary Magdalene: the woman at the heart of Christianity. Cynthia Bourgeault. Shambhala: Boston & London, 2010

NOTE AND SONG

I have continued to experiment with the forms of contemplative prayer and mantra work I use in connection to my Ceile De paidirean.  Having worked some time now with the heart prayer, I have started to engage with other expressions of this tradition. These are drawn from the wider range of Ceile De fuinn (chants).

My overall morning practice is customarily held within a circle cast in “the Sacred Grove of Sophia, the luminous spirit of wisdom”. I have found a fonn (chant) for my walking meditation that links back, for me, to her.  The words are:

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe

Goon tee-guch solus nan solus air mo chree; goon tee-guch aysh an speer-utch air mo chridhe

Come light of lights to my heart; come wisdom of spirit to my heart

When I use this fonn (chant) in walking meditation, I use Sireadh Thall (Sheer-ich Hall) as a mantra, for periods of time, when sitting. It means “seek beyond” and according to the Ceile De, Sireadh Thall is “one of the many poetic names for the Great Goddess of the Gael, Brighide or Bridget”. She has sometimes been called the northern Sophia (as in Caitlin Matthews’ book, ‘Sophia’).  Sireadh Thall, as a divine name, gives me a sense of the Goddess pointing beyond herself to a place where names, forms and images of the divine dissolve.

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe is the fifth fonn on the first Ceile De fonn CD.  Sireadh Thall is the tenth.  I find this latter especially moving.  For me it is presented here in a perfect weaving of voices.  There is no soloist, yet the loss of any one voice – each with its unique integrity – would diminish the piece.  So collectively this fonn gives voice to the Oran Mor, the great song of what is.

In working with different fuinn in this way, I can listen in to them, feel them, taste them – their resonance, their energy, and their inspiration. I get closer to finding my note within that song.

(Sireadh Thall can be accessed and downloaded on http://www.ceilede.co.uk/company/the-fonn.)

PAIDIREAN (PAHJ-URINN) II

I started wearing my Paidirean – the Ceile De prayer beads – for my morning practice on 19 December.  In the Ceile De Order they are used in conjunction with what in this tradition is called the Heart Prayer:

 A Thighearna … Solus an domhain … Chriost mo chridhe … dean trocair oirnn

 Ah hee-earn-ah … Solus on dowain … Chree-ost mo chree … Jaun trok-ir orn

O Lord … Light of the world … Christ my heart … show mercy/compassion/grace

I don’t follow the practice as prescribed, but I notice that I soon started saying this prayer aloud (having listened carefully to the Ceile De CD) when doing walking meditation – initially drawn in by the sound of the old language.  In walking meditation I am mindful to each footfall and so in working the Heart Prayer I have become mindful to each footfall and a syllable of the Heart Prayer as well (except of course when I am not).  As time has gone on I have increased the use of the prayer, sometimes said aloud, sometimes not.  I intersperse this with times of complete silence within as well as without to make the practice more spacious. Likewise in sitting meditation, essentially a plain breath meditation, I have introduced the key phrase “Chriost mo chridhe”, as an intermittent mantra within the practice.  These words in particular anchor in my sense that ‘Christ’ stands for an interior awakening rather than an external or historical being.

Why has this prayer become resonant to me?  I am reminded again of the summer of 2007.  At midsummer I went to Melrose and had the experiences I described in my previous blog post.  On a weekend late in July I was scheduled to go to a conference with my partner Elaine. The plan involved getting from Bristol, where I lived, to Stroud, where she lived.  But we were cut off from each other by floods: roads closed, railway in chaos.  So we both stayed put.  I was following the OBOD Ovate course at the time and decided to have a day of ritual derived from the course followed by a day of reflection and recovery.  The main result of all this, the one image that fully imprinted itself and which I took away, was that of a dove feather falling gently down beside me  It felt initiatic and it gave me my felt sense of connection with Sophia the Holy Wisdom.  It changed the course of my work.  My centre of gravity had shifted and I realised that I had quite a bit of work to do to make this breakthrough good.  How was I going to use the altered state of the ritual experience to create a more lasting change?  Although not fully recognized at the time, this was the beginning of my ‘contemplative’ turn.

Sophia brings a gnostic understanding to Christ consciousness, awakening the practitioner to a non-dual awareness where knower, known and knowledge, lover, love and beloved, are one.   Except that this last sentence is also a formula of sorts and formulas – even if authentic messages from those who have gone before us – are necessarily suspect.  This, at least, is what I take away from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas:

“Jesus said to his followers, ‘compare me to something and tell me what I am like. Simon Peter said to him, ‘you are like a just messenger’. Matthew said to him, ‘you are like a wise philosopher’. Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like’. Jesus said, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have measured out.’  Two followers have personal and cultural presuppositions so strong that their availability for direct experience is compromised.  Only one is sufficiently open and unknowing to make the connection and the shift that goes with it.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it another way.  “In Buddhist circles, we are careful to avoid getting stuck in concepts, even concepts like ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddha’.  If you think of the Buddha as someone separate from the rest of the world, you will never recognize a Buddha even if you see him on the street.  That is why one Zen Master said to his student, ‘When you meet the Buddha, kill him’.  He meant that the student should kill the Buddha-concept in order for him to experience the real Buddha directly.”  (From Living Buddha, Living Christ.)

Following my experience in late July 2007, I wrote a blackberry Lughnasadh verse for my wheel of the year tree poem.

 I am Blackberry

The bramble and the fruit and the wine

And the spirit.

Intoxication as from a bubbling spring,

Freely measured out.

It alluded to the words in St. Thomas and reflected my realization, such as it was. It was not particularly mature or fully integrated, but it did push me into seeking and developing a more rigorous and systematic personal practice.  My hope is that the new shift inspired by the paidirean will deepen and extend it. 

PAIDIREAN (PAHJ-URINN)

The Paidirean are the prayer beads of the Ceile De.  Some believe that they have a Druid origin.  They have always been part of the Ceile De tradition are known to have been used in the days of Columcille (St. Columba).

I got mine from the Ceile De shop a little before Christmas.  There are 150 beads, each about 5 mm wide.  They are made of unstained rosewood and were left immersed in rose damask oil for a month.  As well as scenting the beads, the oil gives the beads a pinkish colour. An equal armed and circled silver cross hangs from the beads – at heart level when worn as a necklace.  This form of cross – Celtic, Gnostic and universal – is an ancient symbol, found in pre-Christian and Christian carvings, and sacred to many people from many cultures.

Each Paidirean is ceremonially strung in Scotland by a Ceile De Order member.  The process takes two hours and involves prayer, meditation and continuous chanting during the stringing.  Then a blessing is spoken over the completed Paidirean which is anointed with water and with oil from a local holy well, used for at least 1500 years.  Sister Fionn strung my Paidirean.  Many blessings to you, Sister Fionn, at the turning of the year.

The Paidirean is an object of power as well as beauty.  I wear it as a necklace when practicing, as well as an OBOD Awen necklace which ends just below the throat.  Wearing the two feels like a kind of completion, and I am reminded of a visit I made to Scotland at Midsummer 2007.  I was in Melrose in the Scottish border region, an area with strong family connections. And I seemed to be in business with three locations.  One was the semi-ruined Abbey, and in particular its orchard and garden.  One was the Eildon Hills, looming up into low clouds.  One was a path by the River Tweed.

I was wondering where I felt most spiritually attuned and where I wanted to spend most of my time.  In its gardens the Abbey felt like a place of peace and tradition, though clearly also compromised by conflicts between nations and orthodoxies. The hollow hills of Thomas the Rhymer fame held challenge, glamour – the heroic spirituality of the vision quest in its local form.  But I turned to the river, and had a small epiphany whilst contemplating a wild rose on the riverbanks.  And I later wrote this verse, which became part of a longer poem.

I am Rose.  I am wild Rose.

I am Rose at Midsummer.

The river flows by me.

Fragile, I shiver in the wind.

And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.

In a sense, that experience, and the verse that recorded it, established the direction for my subsequent spiritual life and practice.  The Paidirean sets the seal on it.

THE TURNING OF THE YEAR

I’ve experienced the turning of the year through small yet telling events.  Yesterday I got up very early, by ‘mistake’.  Awake, hearing traffic, misreading a number on a digital watch, I thought it was 5 a.m. when it was actually 3.  I decided to get up any way and do my practice.

What was on offer, when I got to the lights out and sitting part of the work, was an especially strong felt sense of being born in the dark, of an ever-waking-now experience held by the nurture of the night.  And my switching on of a lamp, when coming out of this experience, seemed like a natural next step.  I could look at the world around me with fresh eyes, with energized attention, with a sense of a blessed awareness.

Later in the day I stood at the Severn Estuary.  I experienced the wider world as latency rather than stasis.  I was in a watery place at a watery time.  There were currents flowing in both directions.  The sky above was cloudy and grey, yet looking back to the ridge that I’d come from, I could see clear blue.  There weren’t many people around.  The energy of the environment seemed to have elements of stillness, of waiting and of gathering.  For the first time in this season, I began to feel an onward pull, away from the still point of the turn, and on to what might be emerging.

In the evening I drew a DruidCraft Tarot card – a single card, to reflect the moment.  I got the 3 of Wands.  A young man looks to the horizon and a possible journey (or a possible visit).  He seems at ease and is companionably holding a tree.  His three wands have been planted nearby and are beginning to blossom.  The path to (or from) an unseen destination (or point of departure) is clearly laid out as far as can be seen.  He clearly has a certain confidence, and something to work with.  And I thought: “OK”.

Finally, I remembered a poem by William Anderson in his ‘Green Man – the Archetype of our Oneness of the Earth’, a book from the beginning of the 90’s.  The poem has 13 verses, each covering a four week period, each connected with an Ogam tree, and I’ve always run the first verse from 22 December to 18 January.  By the time I went to bed yesterday I felt ready for that verse. So during this new period I’ll be conscious of:

“Like antlers, like veins of the brain the birches

Mark patterns of mind on the red winter sky:

‘I am thought of all plants,’ says the Green Man,

‘I am thought of all plants,’ says he.”

I wonder what these lines may inspire over the next few weeks.  And for now – Season’s Greetings to everyone and warmest wishes for the coming year.

DARKNESS

In her recent book ‘The Wakeful World: Animism, mind and the Self in Nature’, Emma Restall Orr writes:

“At its most fundamental, nature is darkness.  Nature’s primary state is darkness.  In stillness, formless, in the darkness, nature is whole.  Yet, nature is minded: it exists within a wakefulness of its own being.  Aware of itself, nature turns within itself in reflection.  The essential movement of nature is the breath of existence, the sacred wind of being.

“… Each moment of interaction within the darkness of nature creates a pattern, a spirit fleetingly finding form, flashing momentarily into being before dissolving back into the whole – except where interactions repeat, allowing a pattern to persist, the spirit lingering in its ethereal form.”

The writing is part of a complex revisioning of animism as a possible philosophical basis for a modern life practice – spiritual, cultural, ethical, political, personal.  As such it seems to me to be an important original contribution to Druidic thought as it moves and develops through time.

What specifically touches me as a meditator is a recognition of how my experience, when practicing, seems to resonate with the above passages.  I tend now to sit in complete darkness with eyes open, and this sitting usually happens somewhere between 5.30 and 6.30 a.m.  At this time of year, it’s mostly pretty dark.  I generally experience myself as sitting within darkness as a nurturing potential. Sometimes I am alert and mindful, sometimes not.  And I come back to this darkness.

At one level this can be an in-the-moment, ‘power of now’ kind of experience.  But the feeling-tone of the experience is influenced by the repetition of the practice over time, by the liturgy that structures it, and the darkness that surrounds and contains it.  They help to create a pattern of contemplative experiencing, shaping an extended field of awareness. They support ‘me’ in awakening to/in the world and relationship(s) with/within it. Meditation can seem solitary and in a way it is.  Yet for me it brings relationship (the kind that the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’) into fuller life.

ANOTHER POEM

Here is another take on the divine child theme – this time by Nuinn (Ross Nichols), who led OBOD in its 1964-75 manifestation.  Ross’ poem is called ‘The Coming Child’.

 

We have created a web of flesh and blood

A fish in our river, a frog in our shallows;

And he shall be a beast of promise and a springing grain.

 

Shedding the child is an act of plenty

The womb full-eared, the excess of the year

And its coming again.

He came in a tent, he

Paddled in a boat, he

Went to the weir.

 

Who is he that came in a tent

And was known in the waters of the firmament?

 

Even he, the web of blood and flesh,

The small thing nestled in red,

Floating in the water of motherhead

In a bag of skin.

 

The beast shall leap aloud and shout

From rock to rock;

And this new grain shall be in ear

Before twelve year.

 

What is the sign that this shall be?

For life and death fall fatally.

 

The waters of the weir are dammed

But the falls flow on;

The sun dies and is eaten of Set

But there is a new sun.

 

The river cannot stop nor for long be stayed,

And its mighty fall

Is the descending of the milk of life,

Birth and succour of all.

 

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