contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

POEM: STAYING OVERNIGHT AT WILLOW BANK INN

When are my travels ever going to end?

My old body has come to this inn again.

The roadside pines and junipers are ten years older,

Once short, but now tall and stately.

The place where I stopped last night is far away;

And tomorrow, tonight will be last night.

In just an instant the present has become the past –

I’d have to be a saint not to drink wine.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves

MIDWINTER THOUGHTS

I am tuning in to midwinter, before it gets overlaid with festivity. Outside, I encounter skeletal trees and the dying back of the land. Inside, I am half inclined to hibernate. I am sleeping longer and more heavily at night. During waking hours, I want to pars everything down. I want to be simple and minimalist.

This mood includes me and ideas. I want to shut them down for a while. But before I do, one topic is holding my attention: agnosticism and its spiritual value. I feel nudged to write now and then leave my seed thoughts to germinate when 2017 gets under way.

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says, “the force of the term ‘agnosticism’ has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say ‘I don’t know’ when you really mean ‘I don’t want to know’” (1). He goes on to say that “for T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through the rigorous application of a single principle’. He expressed this principle positively as: ‘Follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as: ‘Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’. This principle runs through the Western tradition from Socrates … to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it ‘the agnostic faith’”.

Batchelor characterizes early Buddhism as agnostic in this sense. “Buddha said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as ‘God’. …The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” In Batchelor’s account, Gautama Siddhartha was seeking to create an existential and therapeutic culture of awakening, refracted through the symbols, metaphors and images of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. Inevitably over time, the movement tended to lose its agnostic dimension and to become institutionalized as a religion. “The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered” was too politically useful to be ignored by rulers in the Buddhist influenced world.

Looking at Buddhism in the modern West, Batchelor says that while Buddhism’s establishment has long “tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms” today it is in the further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. The danger is the “loss of potential to become realized as a culture, an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life”.

I am not a Buddhist and do not share these specific concerns. And yet I sense something there to reflect on. Modern Druidry and Paganism, as coherent movements, are new. But they are no longer brand new. We do have institutions, and the beginnings of wider social recognition. We enter religious alliances like Interfaith. We intervene in political and other civil society environments. I feel increasingly that I want to apply the test of agnosticism, or something like it, both to my own practice and to any public identity that I might have. I will need to be sensitive and careful. My practice and view are grounded in feelings and intuition. I came to Druidry as a path of beauty and wonder, of nature and the senses, willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of embodied human life. I will not wield the sword of discrimination recklessly. My hope indeed is that a little mental housecleaning will refresh me, bringing a greater clarity and purpose.

I wonder what changes I might make in how I express myself. I wonder about re-assessing my previous work. I wonder what I might seek to develop and engage with in the future. An agenda for the coming year.

Stephen Batchelor Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1997

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

FULLNESS

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching trees, their branches now bare, against a steadily darkening sky. I forgot myself in the scene, feeling filled with it. The core experience was fullness.

I suppose that this is what I mean by the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – though this experience was of the flowing present, extended over time, noticing and enjoying change in nature. On later reflection, I was less reminded of mystics and meditators than of poets, particularly John Keats and his ‘negative capability’. He contrasted this with another type of response, which he called “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”. Negative capability is “everything and nothing – it has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet”. (1)

‘Everything and nothing’ can be experienced as empty or full. I’m increasingly finding fullness. This has the effect of holding me in nature and time, in my unique human life soon enough to be over. This is where I want to be, with the important qualification that ‘fullness’ gives me a additional sense of being resourced by a larger well-spring of life than I might otherwise recognise. Experienced fullness doesn’t come simply from trees and sky. It comes also from the receptive openness I access when my senses are attuned. I find myself feeling a stillness underneath and within all movement; hearing a silence underneath and within all sound; seeing a soft luminescence underneath and within all colour and form, and in darkness too. These are the keys to fullness – a fullness where everything stills and slows down yet doesn’t stop.

Largely this is what I now mean (for myself) by a ‘contemplative’ state. Its development reflects a magpie approach to learning and my felt sense of what is right for me. I discovered the stillness through Buddhist breath meditation (movement of the breath as the belly rises and falls; yet stillness within). But I am not a Buddhist. I learned the silence through listening to the Oran Mor (Song of the World), though I don’t currently work within Gaelic traditions. I discovered (what should I call it?) primordial luminescence within the Headless Way (2). But I’m not continuing with the Headless path, because the headless trope itself now feels tedious and I don’t entirely share the Harding world view. Fullness has a link to Sophian Gnosticism, of all these traditions the closest to my heart, under the Greek name Pleroma. But my ‘fullness’ has come out of direct experience and I’m being careful to keep it that way. I like the resonance of the English word fullness, and it helps to maintain a degree of separation from the ancient view. Yet even whilst maintaining my inner authority, I am grateful for these inputs from the world’s spiritual heritage. I remain indebted whilst crafting my own path.

I’m not Keats and, for me, negative capacity for fullness tends to come as an alloy. It is generally interspersed with a certain amount of egotistical sublime, in my case as an upgraded stream of consciousness or monkey mind narrative. In my universe, that’s fine too, and all part of the fullness. I would like more skill in switching between the two modes at will, and I believe this to be achievable. At another level, it doesn’t really matter.

(1) Keats selected poems and letters Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995 (Selected by Robert Gittings; edited by Sandra Anstey)

(2) http://www.headless.org

GLASTONBURY REMEMBERED

I am five or six years old, the year 1954/1955. I live in Yeovil, Somerset. My mother wants me to have proper shoes. When my feet are measured up in the local Clark’s shop, we find that I need a broad fitting (E) and they don’t have quite the right shoe for me in stock. After talking to the manager, who makes a phone call, my mother decides we are going to the factory shop in Street.

A day or two later, we walk to the Yeovil Town railway station and board a train for Glastonbury & Street. We are going to make a half day of it. So leaving the train  we first take a short bus ride from the station to Street and get the shoes. Then we take a longer bus ride to Glastonbury and I get my first glimpses of the Tor and Abbey. Somewhere in town, we stop for tea and cake, possibly ice cream. Then a brief bus ride back to the station and the journey home. I remember liking the visit. It was a bit special, but I don’t remember it being particularly magical or numinous.

Two years ago I gave a talk in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms to the OBOD Winter Gathering about contemplative Druidry and my book of that name. Later in that day I found myself in the car park in town. I remembered childhood visits to the town and, looking up, I saw the railway station roof. And I thought, ‘how did that get here?’ (I have since discovered that it was moved there as a means of conservation).  I  felt a pang of loss for industrial age Glastonbury, with its good railway connections and neighbouring Street with its solid manufacturing base. (Yeovil Town was closed in 1962. Glastonbury & Street went in 1966.) Clarks shoes were a highly respected local employer, with a national and indeed international name. They are still around, still respected, but no longer a local (or national) manufacturer.

It’s happened before of course. For many centuries, the Abbey, as landowner and pilgrim destination, was the economic centre of the town as well as the spiritual one. Henry VIII’s re-arrangement of his own and the nation’s life ended that at a stroke. But the Abbey will always be remembered. Glastonbury is a pilgrim’s town again, though after another fashion. I just wonder if the culture of my childhood, of easy local train rides and proud local shoe making, will be remembered in quite the same way. At least the station roof is something.

REFLECTION: THE IMAGE OF SOPHIA

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310Pay attention, those that meditate

Upon me, and listen well!

All of you who are patiently waiting,

Take me to yourself!

Don’t dismiss me from your mind

And don’t let your inner voices

Despise me; don’t forget me at any

Time or place; be watchful!

 

 

I am both the first and the last,

I am both respected and ignored,

I am both harlot and holy.

I am wife and virgin, mother and daughter.

I am the unfathomable silence,

And the thought that comes often,

The voice of many sounds,

And the word that appears frequently.

I have been hated everywhere

But also adored.

I am that which people call

Life and you call death.

I am called the Law

And lawlessness.

I am the hunted and the captured.

The dispersed and the collected.

I don’t keep festivals

But have many feasts.

I am ignorant, yet I teach.

I am despised, yet admired.

I am substance

And insubstantial.

I am the union

And the dissolution.

For I am the one

Who alone exists

And I have no-one

Who will judge me.

The lines above have been extracted from an old Gnostic text usually known as Thunder: Perfect Mind. It is part of a collection of fourth century texts known as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt in 1945 though not published until 1978. They were buried towards the end of the fourth century, a time of intensified Christian Orthodoxy in the Roman Empire when it had become dangerous to own them. As well as Thunder, the collection includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. After over 1500 years of burial, these texts are now once again widely known and appreciated. They might not have appeared at all but for the staunch championship of C. J. Jung towards the end of his life.

Generally, Thunder is thought to be about Sophia, who despite her Greek name is a figure from Jewish tradition – a disregarded voice of wisdom, culturally descended from the dethroned Goddess of Israel. In Christian Gnostic tradition, she is partly reinstated both in the myth of Sophia as a cosmic figure and alternative understanding of Mary Magdalene as a human one. This is one of the main reasons why these texts were suppressed. Thunder goes furthest, in identifying her as supreme being and beyond judgement –  unusual even in the paganism of the day. She also says, “I am the bride and the bridegroom”, calling to mind the Gnostic valorisation of the androgyne as symbol of aware wholeness.

Thunder has many themes: the Goddess and what she stands for; contested understandings of gender, social relations  and religious expression; recognition and non-recognition; the vulnerability of wisdom and spiritual insight in human communities; dualities and the non-duality they are seen to be hiding. In the historical life of Thunder, one toxic duality was to be the co-arising of widespread literacy and systematic censorship. For the Gnostics, there was no redemption to be had in history – only in the transcendent light of a realised Divine identity.

I don’t fully know why Sophia became a numinous image for me. Culturally her Gnostic story is compelling. I notice that I am not interested in the Sophia of Orthodoxy, where wisdom is the wisdom of submission (to God, church and Christian monarchy). Nor am I drawn by Sophia as a Romantic, or Jungian, symbol of the ‘divine feminine’ – with archetype as stereotype writ large. The image of the Gnostic Sophia came to me when I was working within a Pagan context and feeling uninspired by gendered north European deities, with the partial exception of Brigid. In any case, I didn’t want to lose touch with the near eastern traditions, especially in this dissident form from Alexandria, which I felt to be part of my spiritual culture. Whatever the reason, Sophia entered my heart and imagination in a way that no other named and anthropomorphised deity has ever done. She became the perfect patron for a contemplative inquiry, taking on especial significance in the final year, when I talked about a ‘Way of Sophia’.

I still keep the icon close to me, and intend to continue doing so. But two recent dreams suggest some withdrawal of presence and energy. Not in a bad way – it’s more like fare-welling a companion or guide at the end of a journey. I am left with gratitude, inspiration, memory – and some continued sense of connection. This post is a way of honouring her.

Mostly I have selected the text above from the Alan Jacobs translation in The Gnostic Gospels published in London by the Watkins Press in 2005 as part of a series entitled Sacred Texts. However this translation is both free and  incomplete, and for my last four lines I went back to the third revised edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English published by Harper San Francisco in 1990, with James M. Robinson as general editor.

Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (The image at the top of this post is used with her permission.)

 

[A Pedagogy of Gaia] The Worst Animals in the World, by Bart Everson

A balanced reflection on ways of thinking about ourselves as humans.

Humanistic Paganism

The Worst Animals in the World

The first results came in from Indiana, my home state. Us grown folk were not surprised, and we knew the final results would be different — or so we thought.

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POEM: COMMUNICATION

Another poem from the English poet and mystic Clare Cameron (1896 – 1983).

 

I beg you, do not speak,

For then I shall not hear what you are saying.

I beg you, do not move,

For then the recognition of what we know

In these arrested moments of our vision

Will fall apart, disintegrate,

And again we shall be ordinary.

 

Let the silence touch the chords of your heart

To its own deep music

And mine will thrill in unison

In the symphony where all chords blend.

You move towards me, as I to you,

Though a hairsbreadth or seas divide.

 

Through us the spirit moves,

Quickens and embraces,

Bringing the comfort, the wisdom and the joy

Of the whole …

And now the words will come

Falling gaily in crystal drops

From the bright torrent of the waterfall

Whose spring is in the mountains.

 

Clare Cameron Memories of Eden London: the Mitre Press, 1976