contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

REVISED 'ABOUT': INQUIRY UPDATE

In my spiritual life, inquiry is one of the disciplines. This is why my contemplative blog is called a ‘contemplative inquiry’. As inquiries run through cycles, and aims are in some sense achieved, my direction needs to be revised and updated. This means that revising the blog’s ‘About’ statement from time to time is a necessary part of the process. When I make revisions I try to make the history clear as well as indicating the new direction. Sometimes, like now, I also want to indicate the shift through posting to new ‘About’ to existing readers. This revision adds a third paragraph to an already existing two – and changing tenses a little in the second.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time this blog became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, and I identified my path as a Sophian Way. Drawing from the enduring wisdom of many times and places, I have experienced it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. It has encouraged a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“Now I sense another turn. The most recent phase of my inquiry has been solitary. It had to be. That phase is now complete, though the Sophian current continues to infuse my spirituality. I am drawn increasingly to culture, community and the concerns of the wider world. As in the beginning, my core public identification is with the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD). Within this, I continue to celebrate the Order’s invitation to explore other traditions, which has borne such fruits for me.”

REVISED AND EDITED FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER 2019

JOHN COWPER POWYS: PORIUS AND TALIESIN

Porius (1) is John Cowper Powys’ last novel. It took him seven years to write, and he completed it in 1949, when he was 77. It is set in the year 499 CE, in North Wales. Porius is a Romano-British prince. Arthur, a suspect foreigner to most local people, reigns as Emperor. Rome is ruled by Goths, but links are maintained with Constantinople. The Saxons are an existential threat. People have to find a way of dealing with the situation in which they find themselves. But the book is at least as much about the inner lives of the characters as it is about the action they take.

Powys thought of Porius as his masterpiece. His publishers did not agree and insisted that he cut it by a third, which he did over two agonising years. Fortunately, a complete edition is available now thanks to modern editors Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir. In her foreword Krissdottir says, “I am always reminded when I read the novel of these lines: ‘we are always in error, lost in the wood, standing in chaos, the original mess, creating a brand-new world’. Powys was as gloriously lost by the time he had written Porius as the reader sometimes is … but he was still the superb craftsman, who knew that it was the story itself that had the power to shape the forest within and without, that had the power to create a brand-new world”.

Instead of writing a review, I want to focus on one character, Taliesin, and what Powys has to say through him about the creative life. Powys has a number of point of view characters, with a variety of stances. He seems to give them equal air-time, making Porius a genuinely multi-vocal novel. Taliesin is portrayed as a young, mercurial bard, popular thanks to outstanding skill in cooking as well as poetry. (The cover illustration above is of Merlin – old, saturnine, more central to the book as a whole). Powys builds Taliesin’s bardic character, and the idiosyncratic working of his awen, with care.

“Taliesin had indeed worked out for himself, quite apart from his power of expressing it in such assonances and alliterations as had never been heard before, a really startling philosophy of his own. This philosophy depended on a particular and special use of sensation; and its secret had the power of rendering all matter sacred and pleasure giving to the individual soul. And it had the power … of fusing the immense past with the immeasurable future and of doing this, moreover, not by means of an ‘eternity’ beyond experience and imagination, but by means of a quivering vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time.”

Taliesin can rely on an easy fluency with language. More important is his capacity for open creative reverie, based on a deep sensitivity to the perceptions of the moment. He is described as sitting on a four-legged stool in the deepening of a late October evening. As he sits, he feels the full warmth of a fire and is able to see “the glittering path of moonlight on wind-ruffled water”. He can see a hawk’s nest, and the “ancestral sword of Cynan ap Clydno, thrust to the depth of half its blade, in the buried stump of a vanished oak tree”. The sword is reminiscent of a cross. Taliesin muses that “any sort of thing happening near a cross, not to speak of a sword, always seems in some way to be watched – if not heard and guarded against”. J.C. Powys comments, “considering the sword and the cross, the moonlit space between that figure on the four-legged stool and Clydno’s rusty weapon may well have vibrated with dangerous antipathy as the words ‘The Mothers’ and ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Annwfn’ floated away towards the lake. Rather than writing, Taliesin speaks into the darkness. Writing may come later. The piece that follows is lengthy, and eventually settles into a contemplation of “the thing none can utter, the thing inexpressible” yet “known from before the beginning”. Here is the final section:

“I know it from pond slime and

frog spawn and grub spit,

From bracken’s green coral,

white lichen, yellow mosses,

Newts sinking with their arms

out to reedy pools’ bottoms,

Swords rusting in their oak

stumps, wrapped in the long rains,

Eggs rotting in their lost nests,

enjoying the wild mists, I know it from all these, and to

men proclaim it:

The ending forever of the Guilt

sense and God sense,

The ending forever of the Sin

sense and Shame sense,

The ending forever of the Love

sense and Loss sense,

The beginning forever of the Peace paradisic,

The ‘I feel’ without question,

The ‘I am’ without purpose,

The ‘it is’ that leads nowehre,

the life with no climex,

The ‘Enough’ that leads forward

to no consummation

The answer to all things, that

yet answers nothing,

The centre of all things, yet all

on the surface,

The secret of Nature, yet Nature goes blabbing it

With all of her voices from

earth, air, fire, water!

Whence comes it? Whither

goes it? It is nameless; it is

shameless;

It is Time free at last from its Ghostly Accuser,

Time haunted no more by a

Phantom Eternal;

It is godless; but its gods are as

sea sand in number;

It’s the square with four sides

that encloses all circles;

Four horizons hath this Tetrad

that swallows all Triads;

It includes every creature that

Nature can summon.

It excludes from Annwfyn nor

man, beast nor woman!”

The mid twentieth century was a time of considerable interest in the Matter of Britain and Arthurian themes. But generally, then, we find a polished and rather conservative Christian perspective, applicable even to Taliesin. The Inkling Charles Williams wrote two collections of linked verse about him – Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars (2). The latter collection includes these lines from the poem Taliessin in the Rose Garden:

“I was Druid-born and Byzantium trained.

Beyond Wye, by the Cauldorn of Ceridwen, I saw

the golden cycle flash in the forest, and heard

the pagans mutter a myth; thence by the ocean

dreaming the matter of Logres I came where the heirarchs

patter the sacred names on the golden floor

under the throne of Empire.”

John Cowper Powys, too, was a man of his time. But insofar as his Porius relies on legendary history, he borrows more from archaic Welsh tradition than the better known pan European literature that developed out of it. He himself is much more nature friendly and Pagan in sensibility. I see him as following a broadly emancipatory direction in modern spiritual culture, and we are his heirs.

(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.

(2) Charles Williams Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2016. Edited with an introduction by Sorina Higgins. (Taliesin Through Logres first published in 1938; The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944)

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

THE FLOW OF INQUIRY

There’s a saying that we never see the same stream twice. It’s true, from a certain perspective. The water is always different. In this recent picture there’s more of it than is usual. The flow is faster and more energised. But in another sense, it is clearly the same stream. There’s a pattern and a placing that make it the same. Not forever. But enough to give it an identity of its own. Enough for us to recognise it, and to be in relationship with it over time.

I think of my inquiry in the same way. It is clearly a process of inquiring, not a thing. It has changed a lot over the years. But I notice, looking back, that it does also have characteristic points of reference and recurring themes. It has its own kind of flow. I see for example that whilst taking up practices of self-inquiry linked to non-dualist movements, I have not embraced the movements. I have gone to them for insight, not belonging. Instead, I have naturalised the insight and reframed it in my own terms – such as stilling into presence, or finding home in the flowing moment. The central focus on Sophia, and the naming of a Sophian Way, has helped here. In my world, contemplative inquiry is a core Sophian practice.

I have also kept a least half a foot in the cultural matrix of modern Druidry, Paganism, animism and eco-spirituality. These movements are closer to my heart and imagination, and feel more like my cultural home. For me, emptiness only has meaning as a home to fullness and and an exuberant multiplicity of forms. The Sophia card (Major Arcana II) in the Byzantine Tarot has a vision of Sophia as present in all of creation and the natural world, and also “watching over the steps of the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessing to find their own path through the world”*. I am not at all sure about the word ‘holy’, but I see Sophia in the stream, and sense the guidance there.

*John Matthews and Cilla Conway The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom of an Ancient Empire London: Connections, 2015

EYE OF SPIRIT

I walk my Sophian Way, seeking imagery for the end of November. The willows provide it. I see a dying back of the year, where the withdrawn and conserved life has a beauty of its own.

Stilling into presence, and holding the trees in loving attention, I act as the eye of spirit. I am aware equally of the uniqueness and otherness of the trees, and of my inter-being with them. I feel love, gratitude and wonder. I also feel a poignancy, and a sense of vulnerability – for them, and me, and everyone else.

I am glad to be taking pictures again after a gap of many years. There are dangers of displacing my attention into the process of photography, or of contracting into a collector’s obsession with ‘capturing’ images. My solution is to be artless and spontaneous in pressing the button – and to leave my phone in my pocket for most of the time. Once at home, I do find myself delighting in the record.

BOOK REVIEW: GREENING THE PARANORMAL

I recommend this book to anyone concerned with deep ecology, animism, or the kinds of phenomena we describe as ‘paranormal’. It opens with two substantial framing pieces, a foreword by Paul Devereux and an introductory chapter by editor Jack Hunter. These are followed by 16 chapters from a diverse range of contributors, mostly seeking to combine direct witness with a workable form of academic analysis. To an extent this book is a story of how to face this difficult challenge. Very early, in his foreword, Paul Devereux shows how the challenge can come from the ‘phenomena’ themselves.

“We were trying to geographically map generations of old accounts of fairy paths we had uncovered in the verbatim records of University College Dublin. Suddenly, standing in the grass, there was a figure, between two and three feet tall. It was anthropomorphic and fully three dimensional (as we could clearly determine while we were drifting slowly past. It had sprung its appearance out of nowhere, and it caught my wife’s and my own transfixed attentions simultaneously.

The figure was comprised of a jumble of very dark green tones, as if composed of a tight dense tangle of foliage rather like the stand of woodland a hundred yards or so beyond the sward of grass. It didn’t seem to quite have a face, just a head with deep set eyes appearing out of the green tangle. It presented a distinctly forbidding appearance. As we crawled past in our car, the figure started to turn its head in our direction, but then vanish.

“Charla called out, ‘Oh, shit!’ We looked at each other, both of us wide-eyed and thoroughly disconcerted. ‘You saw that!’ I asked rhetorically. The whole episode had lasted for only about half a minute or so, but it was unequivocally an actual. if transient, objective observation.”

The running inquiry question throughout the book is, what do we make of experiences like this, if we are determined to honour rather than dismiss them? Devereux senses four major themes in the suggested ‘greening of the paranormal’ in our time. The first is animism, the ‘Big Step for our culture to take’: the sense that the elements of the non-human world are animate in some way – rocks, rivers, soil, as well as plants and living organisms. This involves a deep relationship with the land beyond utility and subsistence. The second theme is the vision quest, a wilderness journey which is more about paying attention and being open to what unfolds, rather than posing questions. The third concerns the ‘liminal’ places that seem to support our breaking through into other-world realms or altered mind states. The fourth is inter-species communion with the animal and plant kingdoms. In the language used by Jack Hunter, we find ourselves dealing with a “profoundly mindful, sentient and agentic world” and the potential re-opening of lost forms of communication and connection.

Many of the contributors believe that we are unlikely to get through the climate crisis if we continue to ignore dimensions of experience from which our cultural filters have exiled us. Some of them live or work in countries that have been colonised by Europeans, but where pockets of traditional indigenous wisdom remain. They recognise that in some cases there are invitations to share in this. There are also concerns about appropriation and the dynamics of the researcher/subject relationship. There is a questioning of the word ‘shamanism’ as currently used – and arguably over-extended and suspect.

This book does not read like a novel. Although I have read it all, there were two or three chapters which didn’t speak to me. Others were riveting. I see it as an excellent book to own and keep for reference. The foreword and first chapter each stand alone and I recommend reading both of them. The other chapters can be cherry picked according to taste or need. Overall there’s a strong invitation to wake up to the aspects of world, life and experience that are being pointed to. The book suggests that they are needed for our personal, social and global healing.

 

REBLOG: ATHEOPAGANISM FOR SOLITARIES

We’re a subgroup of a subculture. Of a couple of them, actually: atheism and Paganism. So it’s not a surprise that though there are many of us collectively, we are spread thinly and may live far away from anyone else who identifies as practicing the path of Atheopaganism. Thus, this post, about practicing as a […]

Atheopaganism for Solitaries — Atheopaganism

IMAGINING MYSTERY

‘Imagining mystery’ is the title given by Ursula K. Le Guin for Chapter 25 in A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, her English rendition of the Tao Te Ching.

“There is something

that contains everything

Before heaven and earth

it is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging.

“all-pervading,

ever moving.

So it can act as the mother

of all things.

Not knowing its real name,

we only call it the Way.

“If it must be named,

Let its name be Great.

Greatness means going on,

going on means going far,

and going far means turning back.

“So they say, ‘the Way is great,

heaven is great, earth is great;

four greatnesses in the world,

and humanity is one of them’.

“People follow earth,

earth follows heaven,

heaven follows the Way,

the Way follows what is.”

Ursula Le Guin comments: “I’d like to call the ‘something’ of the first line a lump – an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way. The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as ‘what is’. I was tempted to say, ‘The Way follows itself’, because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us to see the way not as a sovreignty or a dominion, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.”

She also owns to a piece of creative editing. “in all the texts, the fourth verse reads: So they say, ‘the Way is great/heaven is great;/earth is great;/and the king is great./Four greatnesses in the world/and the king is one of them’.” Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of ‘the king’, it is ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’. I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

I share Ursula Le Guin’s lens, and editorial calls like this are the reason I am drawn to her version more than any other. The text as a whole speaks to our experience of moving between non-duality, dualities, and the multiplicity of the 10,000 the things. For me, the work Ursula Le Guin has done, in reframing traditional understandings of A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, makes her a teacher in her own right.

She calls the first chapter of her version Taoing, emphasising process and flow, and the need to stay open to uncertainties and ambiguities. The text both acknowledges that words over-define experience (thus limiting and distorting it) and understands the need to use them (otherwise why write it?) When taoing, we hold such points of tension. For they are the key to imagining mystery.

“The way you can go

isn’t the real way,

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth

begin in the unnamed:

name’s the mother

of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul

sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,

but different in name,

whose identity is mystery,

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.”

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala A new English version by Rrsula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

A PICTURE ON THE WALL

I imagine a fairly distant future. People are living underground or in domed settlements. The population, though nothing like today’s, is recovering. It is gaining in confidence and ambition. They hope that by continuing their own genetic modification, and terra-reforming the planet, they will be able to live outside again. They have museums, and the stretch of wall above is a prized artefact from a half-legendary pre-apocalyptic time.

What do observers make of it? What, if anything, do they know about birds? Can they name and recognise a ‘duck’ without expert input? If so, do they have any idea of why the representation on the wall is not entirely naturalistic? What about the conventions of thought bubbles and question marks? Would even the curators know about graffiti, and their role in late pre-apocalyptic culture? How do they stand with the notion of ‘humour’?

Conceivably, they know little about us and our intentions. The memory of us may be disturbing to them. This image may be seen as a riddle and a mystery – somewhat magical, somewhat uncanny. It may create a mixture of fascination and unease, ensuring its place as a guaranteed magnet for visitors.

What stories do our remote descendants tell, when contemplating this relic of the past? What, for them, does the picture on the wall say about us? Would we want to know?

NOVEMBER REFLECTIONS

In recent years, I have experienced November as a special month. Moving on from Samhain, it begins winter, and where I live it sees most of the fall. It is a reorientation towards darkness and inwardness. I began my contemplative inquiry, at first limited to OBOD, then to Druidry more widely, finally becoming universal, in November 2011 following a Samhain ritual.

I find November calmer than December, where I tend to feel jangled by the agitated dominance of capitalist consumerism and its appropriation of a Christian festival, itself the appropriation of a Pagan one. The old festivals had an offer for everyone, at least in principle. Now you have to have money to participate, and increasing numbers of people don’t. So I find December an awkward, uneasy time, a ‘festive season’ that, collectively, doesn’t quite ring true.

This sense of a problematic December has made the whole month of November special to me, and powerful for my inquiry. This year I have rejigged my daily practice and replaced a long morning session with shorter sessions in the morning and evening. In the morning I wake up and greet the day with a slightly ritualised (thanks to Druidry) set of exercises. Before going to bed I do a yoga nidra meditation, listening to an audio download. Both practices are grounded in what I would now call a sacrament of presence, and awareness that every experience points towards a source of being from which I am not separate. In this intersection of time and eternity I find my home. I don’t need special ‘spiritual’ experiences. This spirituality doesn’t require them: the work is to enhance my capacity to welcome any experience, including my resistance to negative ones, and find ways to respond. Hence I look to simple, regular practices that provide pragmatic benefits and also remind me of this core insight.

I find that the inquiry aspect of my contemplative inquiry is shifting its focus to personal life, relationships, culture and nature. What’s going on? How am I placed? How am I responding? What difference does my Sophian Way – with contemplative inquiry as its main expression – actually make? These are my November reflections for 2019.

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