contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

POEM: THE BOATMAN’S FLUTE

Today there is no wind on the Yangtze;

the water is calm and green

with no waves or ripples.

All around the boat

light floats in the air

over a thousand acres of smooth, lustrous jade.

One of the boatmen wants to break the silence.

High on wine, he picks up his flute

and plays into the mist.

The clear music rises to the sky –

an ape in the mountains

screaming at the moon;

a creek rushing through a gully.

Someone accompanies on the sheepskin drum,

his head held steady as a peak,

his fingers beating like rain drops.

A fish breaks the crystal surface of the water

And leaps ten feet into the air.

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

Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) was a scholar-bureaucrat and poet of Sung Dynasty China, a period of history during which some of the most treasured masterpieces of Chinese art and literature were created. Yet this culture was vulnerable. Northern China was occupied by Jurchen nomads, and the Southern Sung’s base in Hangchow is described in Chaves’ introduction as “a refuge of elegant solitude  from which they gazed longingly toward the north … in this quiet setting they were able to enjoy the beauties of bird, rock and stream”. The Boatman’s Flute chooses a natural setting, a scene on a great river, to capture a musical moment.

Yang Wan-li’s work is also presented at: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/reflection-on-chinese-poetry/

 

 

 

 

 

DRUID CONTEMPLATIVE DAYS

 

On 1 October Elaine Knight and I will be holding our tenth Druid contemplative retreat day since we began in July 2012. Over the years we have also offered shorter sessions and a weekend retreat (in April 2015). Yet by and large we find that day retreats are the best format for our offer to the community.

Shorter monthly sessions work fine for our local ongoing group, in a context of experience and continuity. But when new people are coming in and meeting each other, we want the spaciousness of a day. A day is enough to build the kind of experience we are aiming at. We are not offering complex teaching that needs extended time to unfold, and we don’t need the dynamics of residential community for our focused and limited purpose.

It looks as though we will have 10-12 people on 1 October and we have reached the point at which we know the day will pay for itself. This is within the ideal range for our kind of day – two or three more or less is also fine. Elaine and I will be co-facilitating this event with Nimue and Tom Brown.

I look back and see ‘contemplative Druidry’ as a project. Retrospectively, I find project a better word than ‘inquiry’, though an inquiry element has been present. I began the project by testing the word ‘contemplative’ itself. Was it going to be resonant or even meaningful in Druidry? I wrote articles in the OBOD membership publication Touchstone asking for people to contact me with their views and, subsequently, describing our early ventures. I created the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group in August 2012. This is still going strong with nearly 1700 members (as at 12 September 2016), though I have not been involved in moderating it for over three years. Over time it became clear that the term does mean something. Although it caused some confusion and questioning at first, it has been taken up. As we developed our practical work, it became easier to explain and discuss.

With the help of a considerable number of other people I was able to publish the book Contemplative Druidry in October 2014. It is still selling and still witnesses the life experience of real people exploring Druidry (frequently among other traditions) and explaining why a contemplative thread matters to them. As time has gone on one of the outstanding questions has been whether there is a particular group of people who can be marked out as ‘contemplative Druids’. I think at this distance the answer is a qualified ‘no’, qualified, because some are clearly contemplative in emphasis. But Druidry is such an extensive field, or interlocking set of fields, that only a few people cover everything. In the end I decided for myself that ‘Contemplative Druid’, as a description of particular people, was a splitting and otherising kind of term (potentially in both directions) and so best avoided. This is why we now talk of ‘Druid contemplative days’ rather than ‘Contemplative Druid days’.

My sense of project is coming to an end. My personal contemplative inquiry, which has always had a degree of separation from the project, is continuing with a different emphasis. But we have a group, and we have the days. Our capacity to provide days is proportionate to the demand for them: no problem there. So I expect this work to continue. For me, it will be my one active role in Druidry. It doesn’t contradict anything else I am doing or likely to be doing. So I look forward to this day, and the continuing life of the group.

Further information on the days can be found at http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com/

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

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Contemplative-Druidry-People-Practice-Potential-ebook/dp/B00OBJAOES/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

 

SOPHIA THE CATALYST

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310In my universe, Sophia primarily acts as a catalyst for what Cynthia Bourgeault (1) calls ‘singleness’ – the spacious mind of non-dual awareness.  I find that gazing into the eyes of my icon (2), or at the image as a whole, triggers me into the Seeing state that I first fully entered with Headless Way (3) exercises. I make a slight shift into what they call the ‘one eye’ perspective, and there I am.

Of course this isn’t dependent on the icon, but the timeless, momentary, gaze in this instance connects with the imaginal realm where I find feelings and intuition to be most present, with a diminished foregrounding of the sensations and thoughts that predominate in other exercises. The experience is the same, yet the feeling-tone is different.

I am still clear awake space, and capacity for the world. I remain grounded in silent stillness. But the passing content, or form, which the changeless emptiness also is and interweaves, is different. A different constellation of human characteristics is brought into the cosmic play. I value and cherish this. The archaic Gaelic tradition spoke of the Oran Mor (Great Song, or Song of the World). I’ve always thought of a Silence being key, holding the Song, and giving it – in a sense – shape; preventing it from being just noise. Yet the distinctions between individual notes also matter – small and transient though they may be. The Song depends on them, too, for its coherence.

At the human level, I have an abiding sense that my true individual note in the Song is Sophian. I do not experience Sophia as simply an abstract Wisdom figure. Nor am I a conventional believing theist (whether unitarian, trinitarian or polytheist) – yet to a degree I am a Sophian devotee, under the tutelage of a psychopomp.

Overall, I associate the Sophian note with a modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relation to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world denial and pure transcendentalism. It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite. This affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul in all its vast complexity as the primary ground of a living and animate nature. This also includes higher orders of perception and awareness leading to more mystical states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience” (4).

Through Seeing, I have learned that the “higher orders of perception” are more accessible than usually suggested, hidden by their obviousness and simplicity, yet entering into empty awareness, recognised as original nature or divine ground. This is why it has become my primary practice. I think there is something of this in earlier Sophian tradition. In the ancient Jewish text The Wisdom of Solomon (5), characteristics of clear and empty awareness are at least intimated, and are linked to Her name.

She is the mobility of all movement;

She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things.

She is the breath of God,

A clear emanation of Divine Glory.

No impurity can stain Her.

She is God’s spotless mirror

Reflecting eternal light

And the image of divine goodness.

Although She is one,

She does all things.

Without leaving Herself

She renews all things.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7: 24-27

Cynthia Bourgeault comments: “This remarkable passage envisions Wisdom as the primordial reflective principle, simultaneously creating and created in a seamless dance of divine becoming. There is a goddess aspect to her portrayal, to be sure – the hint of a divine co-creator – but the important thing to keep in mind is that Sophia/wisdom is presented not as a divinity to be worshipped but as a transformational force to be actualized … Wisdom is about transformation and transformation is about creativity; the three form an unbroken circle.”

Moving forward into the early days of Christianity, Bourgeault says: “The logos (Word) of St. John’s Gospel is merely the grammatically masculine synonym for exactly the same job description as has already been ascribed to Sophia in The Wisdom of Solomon; or, in other words, it is wisdom minus the feminine personification. Functionally, the terms are equivalent, and the gospel text could just as easily have begun, ‘In the beginning was the Wisdom, and the Wisdom was with God, and the Wisdom was God … and the Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us’. In so doing, it might better have conveyed the context and mystical lineage out of which this insight actually emerges. There is no ‘male’ ordering principle counterbalancing a ‘female’ ordering principle – only grammatically masculine and feminine synonyms for a single ordering principle.”

Sophian teaching stands for the transcendence of polarities, as made clear by the Jesus of the St. Thomas Gospel. “When you are able to make the two become one, the inside like the outside, the higher like the lower, so that a man is no longer male and a woman female, but male and female become a single whole … then you will enter in” (6).

Likewise, the Gospel of St. Philip says: “the embrace of opposites occurs in this world: masculine and feminine, strength and weakness. In the Great Age – the Aion – something similar to what we call embrace occurs as well, but though we use the same name for it, forms of union there transcend what can be described here. For in that place … Reality is One and Whole” (6).

‘This world’ and ‘that world’ are not different places – but the same one seen in different ways. In a similar way, Sophia can be described as “the transparent nothing that pervades all things” and also presented anthropomorphically and mythically, as in my icon. Both understandings have value to me. The world of ‘normal’ perception: embodied, of the earth – albeit ‘re-enchanted’ as we say in Druidry, and the setting for a nature mysticism (7); the world of what S. T. Coleridge called the ‘primary imagination’, and of Sophia as image of the divine (8); and the world of Seeing are the same world seen through three different lenses: all to be savoured, all to be enjoyed, all to be known as One.

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The meaning of Mary Magdalene: discovering the woman at the heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambala, 2010

(2) Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (This image is used with her permission.)

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

(4) Lee Brown Gnostic tarot: mandalas for spiritual transformation York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1998

(5) Rami Shapiro (translator) in The divine feminine in biblical wisdom literature Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2005 (The Wisdom of Solomon was originally written in Greek, probably by a Jewish sage writing in Alexandria during the intertestamental era.)

(6) Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman & Cynthia Bourgeault The luminous gospels Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008

(7) http://www.druidry.org/

(8) S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria London: Everyman’s Library, 1956 (First published 1817)

PRESENT ENCOUNTER

 

I am living a human life back-lit by the practice of Seeing. In a sense, this is relatively new and very welcome. I have a formal morning practice in which, for a little while in linear time, I stand as the “silent stillness of Seeing”. This sets the tone for my day. I taste my true nature in ways not fully matched in previous forms of meditation.

In another, profounder sense, I recognise that it has ‘always’ been this way and could not be otherwise. As J. Jennifer Matthews says: “there is clarity: luminous, still and silent clarity. It is with you and in you. It is you. It always exists. No it never takes a break; no it never goes out for just one cigarette. It is the wholeness you can never fall out of. Not in your drunkest, sorriest, most hysterical moments, not even then can you fall out of this clear and sacred perfection” (1).

Matthews is concerned to emphasise that we never really leave the clarity of the here-and-now.  She talks of the present moment as the ‘present encounter’, which for me is an apt way of talking about capacity for the world within the moment, taking a state into the realm of process and action. This present encounter is the only one there is, and so the act of recognition, our apparent ‘return’ to the mystery and intimacy of the encounter, is not to be thought of as the attainment of a goal.  For Matthews such a conceptualisation can only feed into an ‘addiction’ to self-improvement, an addiction which hooks us into distant external goals (jobs, partners, accomplishments), distant internal goals (enlightenment), and toxic relationships with teachers who, “by situating freedom in some future event that they will control … are stealing your wallet and helping you look for it”.

Yet I do feel different, speaking as a human, as the little ‘i’, than before my involvement with Headless Way teaching and practice. The entry, as an initial step, into a key reference experience I hadn’t had before, has shifted my way of being and refined my understanding. I know that I’m talking here at the level of narrative human identity, and not sub specie aeternatis where I simply AM  clear awake space, my true nature.  But engagement with spiritual teachings and movements is part of being human, and picking the healthy, emancipatory ones is part of aware (in the ‘normal’, cognitive sense) human discrimination. That the Cosmos may know itself, I and i, I and you, i and you, you and you – these complex and varied partnerships, co-create the present encounter.

(1) Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just who you are

 

 

SEEING: THOMAS TRAHERNE

“Will you see the Infancy of this sublime and celestial Greatness? Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and the Divine Light wherewith I was born, are the Best unto this Day, wherein I can see the Universe …. They are unattainable by Book, and therefore I will teach them by experience.” (1)

‘Unattainable by Book’ was fighting talk  in seventeenth century England. What sort of person was using this language? Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices.  He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s  republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took  a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. A modern commentator (1) describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.

Traherne is best remembered as a mystic, and his reputation has strengthened over the last century. His diction is of his time, but in the culture of the English language his note seems that of a later age, whilst ultimately timeless.

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry Morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your father’s Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels …

“You never Enjoy the World aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your Veins, till you are clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv yourself to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you….

“Till you are intimately Acquainted with that Shady Nothing out of which the world was made … you never Enjoy the World.”

I’ve enjoyed Traherne for some years. A highly committed Christian, he breaks through formalistic theology, as if drinking directly from a Divine spring. I’ve appreciated him as a kind of Romantic panentheist, from before the time when either term came into use. Now I’m reading him as a Seer as understood in the Headless Way, and I have a clearer focus – the previous one was already fine, but a little fuzzy. Traherne’s human account of Seeing is embedded in time, place and tradition – as is mine. At another level – one awakened joy.

(1) Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)

 

 

 

 

GROUNDED

Where do I stand with contemplative Druidry, this Lammas-tide?

My recent Headless Way (1) experience has had the force of a conversion, and I have to re-draw my internal maps.  Interestingly, I now find myself grounded with tendonitis in my left heel. I probably haven’t experienced an actual rupture, and so I am likely to be grounded for “weeks rather than months”. Still, ample space for managing transformation.

One of the things I am doing is to look back at key steps on the way. For instance, in my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (2), I talked of “practices that support a fuller presence within the stream of passing experience … contemplation in its fullest sense enables a transfigured here-and-now, and the dissolving of subject/object distinctions within it”. I mentioned how the contemplation of a wild rose on the banks of the Tweed had triggered such a dissolving, and how this had morphed into a blissful peak experience lasting for some weeks. But I was also clear that such an experience should be framed as an occasional grace, pointing beyond self as commonly understood, and not accessible at will.

This perfectly illustrates why Douglas Harding’s style of Headless Seeing has been a game changer for me. The core experience is readily accessible – i can recognise my true nature, the greater I, at will, through simple Seeing. I am no longer a seeker. In a form of brief contemplative practice,  I see clear awake space and capacity for the world. Since there is no doubt or issue about what I see, the open questions concern capacity for the world. In my human life, in place and time, what capacity do I manifest? Where do I put my energy?

Here I stand, spiritually committed to a contemporary iteration of the Sophia perennis known as the Headless Way.  In terms of ancient wisdom, I’ve understood that there are two continuing lines of tradition that relevantly sustain me. Their pull is largely intuitive and emotional rather than via actual doctrines. One is Christian Gnosticism, theist and often dualist though it may be. The other is the interweaving of Taoist and Chan Buddhist culture in China. There are people and writings in other traditions that I also value, but those are ones I look at with most care.

I do not, now, expect to be in business with any kind of Shamanism, or to have a practitioner relationship with the British/Irish ‘indigenous’ spirituality of any ethnic group or from any pre-Christian period. Of course I continue to be blessed by a level of knowledge and appreciation; they are part of me, in that sense. But that’s as far as it goes. I have let go of my role as a mentor on the OBOD distance learning course (3). I could continue to understand and support people, very congruently, but for me the difference between their practitioner lives and mine has grown too great over the last six months or so. I couldn’t carry on. It didn’t seem right.

On the other hand, what we do in contemplative Druidry is different. Following our learning from Contemplative Druidry our practices support a modern (romantic? post-modern?) ‘nature mysticism’ revolving around forms of lean ritual, group meditation, being/walking in nature and creative arts. I’m entirely up for this, whether it continues under the name of Druidry or not. This is something to work through with my companions in that arena.

The time to leave an activity is when I am no longer learning or contributing. But I want to be accurate in my assessments, and to avoid errors stemming from the force of change, especially letting go of things that I would do better to keep and re-integrate into a new whole.  A time of joy and breakthrough, needing careful navigation.

(1)  Headless Way http://www.headless.org

(2) James Nichol (2014) Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm Deep peace of the quiet Earth: the nature mysticism of Druidry)

(3) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) http://www.druidry.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘LOOK FOR YOURSELF’

Last Sunday evening I returned home from Look for Yourself, “a residential workshop to explore the headless way in every day life and how to explore it” (1).

The workshop was four days long. It brought together some 50 people, with varied levels of experience, who practise the headless way. The note was one of experiment and celebration. The facilitation was excellent.

This was my first experience of working in community in this way, and I am immensely grateful for it. Sharing my experience, and exploring its meaning with others dedicated to the same practice, provides a reference point and resource for my everyday life.

In this tradition, ‘Seeing’, being a ‘Seer’, involves an initial surrender to naivety and seeing through the eye of the infant. Pointing away from myself, I see light, colour, form. Pointing in, where others see my face, I see nothing – and light, colour and form fill the space and sit on my shoulders. I discover myself as clear, awake space – and capacity for the world. Ultimately, I AM the nothing, which contains everything.

Seeing is a valley experience. Although I feel open and inclined to be friendly, I do not experience bliss or euphoria. I do not feel that I know everything or have gained special abilities. Seeing is just what it is, with a certain understanding. It is reliable, repeatable and doesn’t go away.

When I move into Seeing in my morning practice at home, it feels like a sacrament rather than a meditation. I have even evolved a brief liturgy for when I move out of the formal practice – imagining Sophia both as Wisdom and as Love:

Wisdom says I am nothing; Love says I am everything.

In the silent stillness of Seeing, I AM.

In the cosmic web of creation, i become.

It acts as a reminder that I have learned how to open the gates of Heaven gently, from within, understanding my true nature. James no longer has to look for ways of getting them to open from the outside – whether through humble prayer or siege by meditation.

Most of the time i am James, timebound in 3D reality, and i like this, enjoy it indeed: the task and privilege of a human is to live a human life. However Seeing involves being able to distinguish the i of James and the I of Awareness (the little one and the big one as we would say in the workshop). In Seeing, we take the goal as the path. We begin our exploration of the mountain from the top. Part of the work, then, is to refine our understanding of the experience and of an I/i, One/many cosmos (where these identities are distinct but not separate). The rest of the work is to maintain access to the experience and connection with its meaning. We can then learn to live our human lives out of it.

As I see it now, Seeing is our awakening. The headless way offers a minimalist yet subtle teaching, without any prescribed path or normative ethics. It also provides a loose-knit yet strong seeming community. The form of contemplation is the simplest possible – just Seeing: the simplest, yet also the most profound.

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

 

 

 

 

INTERPRETATION IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

This post, the last in a series on practising contemplative inquiry, concerns interpretation. Previous posts covered values and methods.

In my post about values (1) I introduced ‘delicate empiricism’, an idea that goes back to Goethe and which I see as very Sophian. Arthur Zajonc recommends this idea to us by reflecting that “we have precious little information that bears directly on the true nature of reality. Data and theories are bound to experience, so we cannot say what reality is ‘in itself’, but only how it appears to us” (2).  Such a view invites us to “set aside all notions of a real world beyond experience and stay with experience itself. We cultivate an attitude that values phenomena of all types”. We simply give space for experiences to unfold and “resist the tendency to explain them away as merely brain oscillations, or to imagine them as the visitation of angelic presences. Neither view is admitted. We stay with them, allowing them their time and place in our attention”.

When I do exercises from the Headless Way (3), I enter into a state in which I experience myself as ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’. I explore this state both as an experience and as a resource. Douglas Harding speaks with certainty that “this Clarity I see here and now (with or without the aid of this in-pointing finger) is that of each of my constituent cells, molecules, atoms, particles, as well as of my planet, star and galaxy and universe, no less than it is Douglas Edward Harding’s. As this Clarity or Void, I embrace this hierarchy throughout time, and I AM the Timeless and Changeless Origin and Centre of all those timeful and changing things. Not just his brain, but every part of him is born and dies. I do neither.” (4)  I do not share the certainty that being ‘clear awake space’ fills a God sized hole that is also my ultimate identity. I know that this is the view of many non-dualist traditions. I entertain the possibility. At times I work ‘as if’ it were true, to get a sense of a life lived from such an understanding, and the difference it makes. Yet I remember that this story is not the state itself. Delicate empiricism finds strength and value in unknowing, gently contradicting any desire for closure, or for refuge in belief.

Sam Harris makes the opposite interpretive error, in my view. Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non Apocalypse” (5) linked to the emergence of the anti-theistic New Atheism of a decade ago. (The others are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.) He rightly says, “there is experience, and then there are the stories we tell”. But he then goes on to assert: “these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies … altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms” (6). Harris values meditative states both as a practitioner and a neuroscientist. He describes Harding’s account of ‘Headlessness’ very respectfully as that of a “contemplative who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity”. But Harris will not entertain Harding’s further step. He dismisses the possibility that “a person can realize their identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos” as a New Age delusion. He shuts the subject down.

Harding and Harris would both claim the mantle of empiricism in their approach to spiritual inquiry. Both are willing to learn from ancient traditions, whilst seeking to update them with science based understandings and a scientific approach towards spiritual insight. But in each case there seems to be a point where they fail to recognize their own ‘story’ (in Harris’s case an anti-story) and fall all the more heavily into its trance. For me this perfectly illustrates the value of a more tentative, delicate empiricism to contemplative inquiry.

 

 

 

METHODS IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY: PART 3

This post is about meditation, and looks at three approaches to meditation supportive of contemplative inquiry. The first is that of the Headless Way, the second is Sophian meditation, and the third is a form of breath awareness meditation.

The Headless Way

 I have been working with the Headless Way – a path devised by the late Douglas Harding (1) – for 3 months, having started at the end of March. I include a ‘headless’ exercise in my morning practice on completion of my chakra work and in my understanding the experience is that of the 7th chakra, an empty awareness holding all the others. It begins with pointing first outwards and then inwards at our own heads, and then coming up with a literal description of what we actually see. On doing this for the first time, I wrote: “Looking out – curtains, folds, blueness; Looking at body – arm, flesh, patterning; Looking in – nothing but space and the ‘external’ impressions that fill it. An odd sense of relief, building to lightness and joy”. Later I talked of “space instead of head, never moving, always now” and how “world and sky rested on shoulders”. This experience, “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, as I called it quite early in the piece, tended not to last long in linear time in the early days, but “I experienced an extended afterglow in which a warmth and radiance of being continued”.

I find that, as Douglas Harding said, “the initial seeing gives the ability to renew it. Since the Absence of things here is as plainly visible and as coolly factual as their presence there, the seeing of this Absence is available any time, at will”. Not dependent on ideas or feelings, it is a contemplative path without the trappings of mysticism, available “at least as much” in the market place as in the meditation hall. Now I am familiar with it, I probably wouldn’t say “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, and some of the glow has gone. But regular practice has given me a reliable method of establishing a habit of conscious 1st personhood as “No-thingness here”. The work now is to maintain this perspective whilst giving full honour to my embodied every day self – the life of the other six chakras.

Breath meditation

 I still have a role for breath based meditation, and I like the version I alluded to in a January 2016 (2) post reviewing Russel Williams’ Not I, Not Other Than I (3). Here are his instructions, followed by my comments:

“Feel down here, a little bit above the navel you’ll find the right place. Centre yourself there, in feeling. Observe your breathing, in the sense of the expansion and contraction of the outer part of the body, as if it were a balloon …” From here we are guided to notice the calming and peaceful effects of this “gentle movement, this comfortable gentle movement … absence of agitation, peacefulness … a kind of heartfelt warmth of feeling … it feels homely, as though you belong there … And as though it were a light”.  We then move outwards from the “balloon” to include the whole physical body and then go beyond it. “It reaches out in all directions … and begins to feel at home with all its surroundings, whether it be animate or inanimate … of the same nature” …. And so on into silence for a few minutes. At the end of the meditation the practitioner is asked to draw back into the “very centre”, making sure it is “still peaceful and warm” before returning to normal consciousness.

“What I learned from this was the flavour of ‘sense-feeling’, a specifically located warmth, a sense of quiet movement, qualities of gentleness and peace. Nurturing is another favourite Williams word. These qualities fill the body-mind and move beyond it, filling emptiness, engendering loving-kindness. In a group meditation, Williams reports that they can create a deep rapport and subtle meeting place between participants. The aim is to develop “such gentle perception that you could compare it to a finger, soft and warm, touching a snow flake, but so delicate that the flake doesn’t melt”. From there, we can begin to see into the nature of things, becoming aware of a different reality, expanding into it until we become “boundless”. This is achieved not by any great effort, but by simply letting go.”

Whereas Headless Way seeing is best done standing up, this meditation is for sitting or reclining. However, in the reclining position, especially on a bed, I am liable to go to sleep. The quality of sleep is deep and refreshing, and I like it. But the posture is undoubtedly problematic for the more earnest and goal-oriented meditator. For me, the Headless approach is linked more strongly to inquiry, so the relaxation offered here is absolutely fine.

Sophian Meditation

I gave an example of Sophia meditation in my Re-dedication post in May (4). I wrote: “I open my heart to the wisdom of Sophia and gaze at my icon”, then going into reflective mode about recent contemplative work in the Druid community. On completing this period of reflection, I went deeper, saying: “I close my eyes and slip into Sophia’s Innerworld nemeton, which takes the form of a walled garden”.

I do this mediation sitting, and despite closing my eyes I do not find myself going to sleep. The basic setting doesn’t vary much. It is a familiar and well-worked Innerworld space. “At the centre is a fountain surrounded by four rose beds separated by run-offs. Two of the beds hold white roses, and two hold red. There are seats around the fountain, big enough for two people, on all four sides. The rest of the garden is more of an orchard with many kinds of fruit tree, including some trained up the garden walls. These walls are brick, and have an eighteenth century feel.  The orchard isn’t over-manicured. It might indeed be described as slightly unkempt, though not with any sense of neglect.”

Specific characteristics vary a lot, and much of the communication available to me here is through the variances in setting, or how Sophia presents herself, rather than through actual dialogue.  When I visit this garden, the Sophia of the icon may sit opposite or beside me. But she may also take different forms – a dove, a rose, a tree, the fountain itself. She may be another bird or creature that turns up in the space. She may be sunlight in a drop of water. I may also experience her as all of it, so that goddess and nemeton are one. She is always a friend and guide. In my re-dedication piece, I went on the describe the specific circumstances of the day:

“This time she is in her icon form, though the dove is in a tree and the chalice by her side as she sits opposite me, in the late May dawn, east facing west. I go into my headless state and know that the same is true of her. But the context (the Innerworld, in this garden, with Sophia) changes the state, making it more intimate, relational and local. I like it. In my heart, I have more care about the particularities, indeed vagaries, of the writing than the pristine emptiness of the paper that holds them, though both perspectives matter and they do belong together. If form is nothing but emptiness, and emptiness nothing but form, then what we always have is paper being written on, and it is the story writing itself that mostly draws a storying monkey like me.

“As this thought, within my living dream of the garden, passes through, Sophia comes to sit beside me. We are simply companionable, watching the fountain, as the clear fresh water bubbles up. It is from an inexhaustible spring. In this archetypal garden setting, Sophia renews an eternal pledge – that wisdom’s commitment is to extend and transmute knowledge, and not to repress it. And in this moment the garden, the fountain and Sophia begin to fade …”

Next Post

The final post in this series will be about questions of interpretation in contemplative inquiry.

 (1)  Http://www.headless.org

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(3) Russel Williams Not I, not other than I: the life and spiritual teachings of Russel Williams Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: O Books, 2015 (Edited by Steve Taylor)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/re-dedication/

METHODS IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY: PART 2

In my last post I talked about the ritual patterning of my morning practice and, in my understanding, the Sophian values it enacts. Here I discuss what happens in the main body of the practice. This begins with a set of physical and breath related exercises, which I originally learned in a Tantric setting. They draw on a kundalini yoga tradition (1) and to an extent on Chinese energy arts. I call them ‘rejuvenation exercises’ and I do them because I like them and find them beneficial.

I do not have a strong view of subtle energy or deep experience of energetic healing. But I do feel charged by this work and I go on to a contemplative engagement with the chakra system. This system  is now widely use and has been described as “part of a common, New Age esotericism in the West, entering from pan-Hindu use of the six or seven chakras in Yoga to indicate centres of power within the body and specifically arranged along the central axis of the trunk. Within Indian medicine this central axis became identified with the spinal column, and there are … fusions of Western anatomy with Indian esoteric anatomy (2)”. Druids and Pagans use this system too, and are therefore to my mind a sub-set of the ‘New Age’ in this regard. For me, the main value of this work is that it offers a for of practice that is both contemplative and embodied.

Historically, “the Tantric body is encoded in tradition-specific and text-specific ways. The practitioner inscribes the body through ritual and forms of interiority or asceticism, and so writes the tradition onto the body. Such transformative practices are intended to create the body as divine. This inscribing of the body is also a reading of text and tradition … Any distinctions between knowing and acting, mind and body, are disrupted by the Tantric body in the sense that what might be called imagination becomes a kind of action in tantric ritual and the forms that the body takes in ritual are a kind of knowing”. The description describes an Indian spiritual culture, transgressive in certain respects, but quite typical of medieval (and to a degree modern) cultures in creating practices where first person, subjective experience is moulded by reference to authoritative texts. Tantric teachers took care to write their works in Sanskrit, no longer spoken but still the holy language of their cultural zone.

I’m aware of being from a different culture in both time and place. For me the chakra rainbow works because it creates the body as more fully human, rather than ‘divine’. For this very reason it suits me better, I now find, than the Kabbalistic middle pillar system which I have sometimes used as an alternative. I begin this section of  my morning practice by raising my arms and holding them up with the palms of my hands pressed together just above the crown of my head. Then I move down the chakra positions, using gesture, sound, and colour to inscribe and energize them:

At crown level, palms in prayer position, syllable nngg as in sing, colour violet-flecked white.

At 3rd eye level, index fingers touching brow, syllable mmm as at end of Om, colour indigo.

At throat level, hand cupped below my throat, syllable eee, colour bright blue.

At heart centre level, hands crossed over my heart centre, syllable ayy as in play, colour green.

A little above my navel, hands clasped together, syllable ahh as in father, colour yellow.

At the pelvic level, hands in a diamond mudra, syllable oooo as in rule, colour orange

Bent down, each hand on a foot, syllable ohh as in road, colour red.

 From here, I turn my attention around and move slowly up again, elaborating meanings, and noticing my responses – sensations, feelings, thoughts. The following is an example of how I can work in a session, here using affirmations. I check out my congruence in using the chosen words: how fully do I stand behind them? Do I experience any promptings to change them?  I also check out the ‘demons’ present at each level and ways in they test the affirmations.

Feet: earth/body/senses: ‘I am a child of the Earth. I am welcome here.’ [Demon: Fear]

Sexual/Sacral: water/desire/sexuality/feelings: ‘I embrace sensory pleasure’ [Demon: Guilt]

Belly:  fire/will/power/self-sense: ‘I celebrate my personal power’ [Demon: Shame]

Heart: air/thinking/social sense: ‘I love and am available for love’ [Demon: Grief]

Throat: sound/resonance/creativity/expression: ‘I speak my truth’ [Demon: Lies]

Brow: light/imagination/vision: ‘I am guided by the Light of Sophia’ [Demon: Illusion]

Crown: awareness/capacity: ‘Empty awareness, holding the world’ [Demon: Attachment]

I have to say that there is indeed a text behind this practice, and a tradition. The text is Eastern Body: Western Mind by Anodea Judith, and I picked it up and worked with it easily because I already shared certain cultural features – some background in ‘New Age’ Tantra, more extensive background in humanistic/transpersonal and in particular Jungian psychology and therapeutics, and a knowledge of developmental psychology. This presentation of the chakras draws attention to the human life course. The upward hierarchy is aligned to the developmental tasks of different age groups – root, pre-birth to one year; sexual/sacral six months to two years; belly two to four years; heart four to seven years; throat, seven to twelve years; brow, adolescence; crown, adult. The practice is made powerful by the reality that ideal development is not normal, and most of us live with some level of wounding at more than one developmental stage. Our younger selves, and their needs, continue to live within us.

Contemplative chakra work  reinforces my commitment to the human side of human spirituality. The stresses and distresses of the human body/mind are part of contemplative work in my view and this work is a direct challenge to ‘bypassing’ – the flight into love and light as a means of escape from aspects of life experienced as negative or distasteful. I don’t treat Judith’s work as gospel and I have customised her framework in important respects. But in what I hope is an authentic and creative way, I freely acknowledge being text and tradition based in my use of chakras, happily using conventional frameworks and understandings to the extent that I find them useful.

In my next post I will discuss the forms I meditation I currently use and why I have chosen them for this stage of my inquiry.

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

(2) Gavin Flood The Tantric body: the secret tradition of Hindu religion London & New York: I.B. Taurus, 2006

(3) Anodea Judith Eastern body: Western mind: psychology and the chakra system a a path to the self Berkeley, CA, 2004 (rev. ed.)