contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

NATURALLY INQUIRING

Recently I reviewed Godless Pagans: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (1) which I enjoyed very much. There’s a growing community of Pagans clearly identified as ‘humanistic’ and/or ‘naturalistic’ – see https://humanisticpaganism.com – and I am wondering about how I sit with this approach.

I am dedicated to contemplative inquiry. I see it as naturalistic. But I am also aware of the way in which terms like ‘empiricism’, ‘science’ and even ‘humanism’ can be mobilized for a certain type of fighting talk. This says that valid knowledge can be based only on third-person, objectifying inquiry conducted on a hypothesis-experiment-results model. I am engaged in a first person inquiry, which also extends to community and culture, as in my Contemplative Druidry book (2), so for me this is a potential problem.

In response I pick up a book off my shelves, and dust it off. The title says Qualitative Research in Counselling and Therapy (3). A half-remembered store of magic words is laid out before me in the accessible form of chapter headings: qualitative inquiry, hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnographic approaches, grounded theory, conversation, narrative and discourse analysis, bricolage. I used to work in the field of public health and health research, with sexual health, mental health and ageing as my main focus at different times: all areas where lived experience and issues of culture, meaning and value are of great importance.  So I’ve long had a concern with an extended epistemology, which takes these areas into account.

There have been many attempts to bring different pathways to knowledge together and identify what the togetherness might look like. One of the most recent is Ken Wilber’s Quadrants model (4), which sits as the Q in a larger system called AQAL. The quadrants look like this:

 

INTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘I SPACE’

 

The subjective life world – thoughts, feelings, meanings, meditative states

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality

 

An exemplary text would be: In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

 

EXTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘IT SPACE’

 

Atoms, brains, bodies, behaviours, organism

Explored in natural science, scientific medicine, philosophy of science

 

An exemplary text would be: Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett

 

INTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘WE SPACE’

 

Shared meanings, relationships, mutual understanding, the influence of culture, media, community

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality; also philosophy and ‘qualitative’ social science

 

An exemplary text would be: The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault

EXTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘ITS’ SPACE

 

Systems, environments, technology, cosmology

Explored in the domains of natural science, philosophy of science and ‘quantitative’ social science

 

An exemplary text would be: A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss

 

 

The basic outline above is Wilber’s. I have added the bits that suggest subject domains and key texts which I know well enough to put in the boxes – in both of the multi-volume works on the left, the first volume makes to point on its own. I value all the quadrants, whilst having a clear bias towards the left hand. My contemplative inquiry is in the upper left quadrant, though my beliefs in no separate self and interdependence push me out, especially towards the lower left hand but to an extent over to the right as well. In this perilous Anthropocene era, how could they not?

Contemplative inquiry in the narrower sense is about consciousness and conscious being. Here I follow James Hillman in suggesting “suggesting a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination” (5). Hillman places himself in a western lineage going back from Jung, “through Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus and Plato to Heraclitus”. All I can say is that from a subjective lifeworld perspective this makes complete sense to me, though in my reading I’d emphasize the term ‘starts from’ – the third person perspective also matters and all the other factors mentioned clearly have their role.

In taking this stand I have recently gained comfort from an unexpected source, the neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Sam Harris. A friend and associate of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris is not persuaded that Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (6) albeit a brilliant and fascinating book, has fully lived up to its title, or could be expected to. Harris says (7):

“We know of course that human minds are the product of human brains. There is simply no question that your ability to decode and understand this sentence depends on neurophysiological events taking place inside your head at this moment. But most of this mental work occurs entirely in the dark, and it is a mystery why part of this process should be attended by consciousness. Nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence for it in the universe – nor would we have any notion of the many physical states it gives rise to. The only proof that it is like something to be you at this moment is the fact (obvious only to you) that it is like something to be you.”

Harris is well versed in both contemplative practice and scientific investigation, and so is at ease both with the exterior and interior approaches to consciousness. He has experience of the self-less state and is also clear about describing selflessness as “not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness, but right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it”: no need to invoke divinity-as-subject or traditionally mystical views of ‘enlightenment’ as heroic attainment. I for my part experience Headlessness, very available in the Douglas Harding method -see website at headless.org  – as perfectly containing the poetry of mind. It’s ‘only’ natural. How miraculous nature is!

(1) Halstead, J. (ed.) (2016) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans com (Foreword by Mark Green)

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

(3) McLeod, J. (2001) Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy London: Sage

(4) Wilber, K. (et al) (2008) Integral Life Practice: a 21st century blueprint for physical health, emotional balance, mental clarity, and spiritual awakening Boston & London: Integral Books

(5) Hillman, J. (1990) The essential James Hillman: A blue fire London: Routledge. (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

(6) Dennett, D. (1990) Consciousness explained London: Penguin

(7) Harris, S. (2014) Waking up: searching for spirituality without religion London: Transworld Publishers

 

 

RE-DEDICATION

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310Early this morning, I re-dedicated my contemplative inquiry. Yesterday was my 67th birthday. It seems like a good moment for re-visioning and renewal.  I recently received my Sophia icon from Hrana Janto* and finally understood that my contemplative inquiry is itself my Way of Sophia. I don’t see this as a project – more as an ongoing life practice. My contemplative Druid work and exploration of the Headless Way are aspects of inquiry, and this re-dedication is an integrating move.

The original dedication was at Samhain 2011. It assumed a Druid and specifically OBOD context, and I did see it as a project. I didn’t give it a timescale, but later I thought in terms of 5 years. The re-dedication comes a few months short of that, at a time when – amidst many continuities – there has been a clear shift in focus.

Today I made use of the icon, entered into a reflective space, before deepening into an Innerworld journey. Working with imagery puts me in a realm of what James Hillman (1) understands by ‘soul’ work. For him, soul (or psyche, or anima) is “a perspective, rather than a substance, a view point towards things rather than a thing in itself … by soul, I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy – that mode which recognizes all meanings as primarily symbolic or metaphorical”. For Hillman, soul makes meaning possible and turns events into experiences. It is communicated in love, and characteristically has a religious concern.

In my morning ritual, I open my heart to the wisdom of Sophia and gaze at my icon.  I remember and appreciate the initial inquiry – writing articles for OBOD’s member journal Touchstone; gradually bringing people together, holding the first events, launching the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group, connecting with people in other Druid bodies (The Druid Network and Order of the Sacred Nemeton in particular); developing a monthly meeting cycle for the home group; writing the Contemplative Druidry book, offering contemplative Druid events to the wider Druid and fellow-travelling public, including both day retreats and a residential. This feels good to recall, because sometimes I think that the project hasn’t spread very far or been widely understood, mostly through my own limitations and relative reclusiveness. Here I can focus on what has been achieved, and allow myself to recognize that there is something to appreciate.

Completing this period of reflection, I close my eyes and slip into Sophia’s Innerworld nemeton, which takes the form of a walled garden. 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. 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.

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 …

I came away from my ritual of re-dedication feeling encouraged and refreshed, and a new cycle begins from here.

 

*http://Hrana.Janto.com

(1) Hillman, James The essential James Hillman: A blue fire London: Routledge, 1990. (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

 

 

 

MIND & LIFE EUROPE 2016

News from Mind and Life Europe: The 2016 European Summer Research Institute (ESRI) is holding an international multidisciplinary conference in Chiemsee, Germany, August 22-28, 2016. The topic is Contemplative Training: Plasticity and Change in Science and Society.

The purpose of the conference is to investigate processes of change, from cell to society, arising from mental training as practised in the contemplative traditions. Two specific questions will be addressed:

  • what is the impact of mind training on brain, behaviour and society?
  • How, and to what degree, are these findings relevant to our understanding of processes of change as they take place in our personal and social worlds?

The conference spans the arc from the physiological level, where the focus is on neuroplasticity and epigenetics, to the individual and societal levels, where critical life periods of change (adolescence, ageing) as well as contemplative practice-related change in settings like psychotherapy, education, the workplace, and politics will be examined. Sciences and philosophies of change from both Western ad Eastern traditions will be explored.

For further information, please see: http://www.mindandlife-europe.org/

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: GODLESS PAGANISM

Highly recommended. Godless Paganism: voices of Non-Theistic Pagans is the fruit of a substantial pioneering project. The book has 75 chapters, with only a small number of contributors writing more than one. The chapters are arranged in 10 themed sections, with a substantial introduction that surveys the territory as a whole. I think that anyone with an interest in modern Paganism could gain something from this book.

The book exists thanks to the efforts of John Halstead and colleagues at HumanisticPaganism.com. (I notice that, in the text, ‘Naturalistic Paganism’ seems to be the more favoured term). Money was raised by supporters and the book is published by Lulu.com.

Godless Paganism is fresh and alive, and introduces many voices – the voices people who are moving and changing, engaged in experiential exploration, open to new ways of sense-making. Culturally, it has as U.S. centre of gravity, though contributors from other parts of the world are included.

Some contributors report being challenged by fundamentalist Pagans over their right to call themselves Pagan, and this is presented as a problem emerging in the 21st. century rather than an inheritance from the 20th. This may help to explain why Godless Paganism has, for me, a remarkably deity-focused feel. Brendan Myers writes a chapter called The worship of the Gods in not what matters but the book has no overall sense of saying, ‘let’s base our spirituality on a different focus – our response to nature, perhaps, or to suffering’. Approaches like this are represented in the book, but it is more usual for contributors either to present reframed understandings of ‘deity’ and ‘belief’, or to celebrate the play of deity yoga without belief. All fine by me – yet this does suggest a concern with responding to perceived fundamentalist challenges rather than an actual departure from theistic language and theistic frames of reference.

Having said that, I strongly welcome Godless Paganism and what it represents. I hope that it strengthens the confidence and community standing of those who identify as ‘naturalistic Pagans’. I salute the people who have made this happen, and I look forward to future collections on this topic.

 

John Halstead (editor) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans Lulu.com 2016 (Foreword by Mark Green)

SOPHIA AND THE ORAN MOR

Who is Sophia for me, here and now? To do the question full justice, I want to back up and look again at her presence in Eurasian culture.

In the old cosmologies, she is ‘Wisdom’ in three spiritually influential languages – Sophia (Greek), Hokhmah (Hebrew) and Prajna (Sanskrit). She has attracted titles like Goddess, Mother of Angels, Saint, and Mother of Buddhas. In the Mahayana Buddhist world, she is related to bodhisattvas such as Tara and Kuan Yin. She has resonances with the Shakti power of Kashmiri Shaivism and with ‘spirit of the valley’ and water imagery in the Tao Te Ching.

In the Hellenistic culture of the Roman orient, especially Alexandria with its large Greek and Jewish communities, she has clear resemblances to Isis (already somewhat remodelled by the Greeks from an indigenous original) and to Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel, and her continuing half-recognition as Shekinah. Sophia is also a key figure in certain iterations of Christian Gnosticism, in some of which Mary of Magdala has been understood as her human incarnation. She is sometimes a cosmic mother, but never exclusively an earth mother, though that aspect can be included. Her main role  is to complete our spiritual knowledge and understanding by imbuing us with compassion. The result is wisdom.

I am inspired by these ancient traditions. But I am not directly guided by them. I look more to my own experiences and sense-making, together with input from contemporary teachers. As I write, I sense Sophia as a body-feelings-mind wisdom, a systemic presence greater than my linguistic/narrative identity. It is as if she nudges me from all sorts directions. I might call some of these intuition; others, synchronicity.  Embarking on a Way of Sophia was part of a plan. Discovering the Headless Way, and finding that its methods worked, was not. It came at me in a very odd, sideways manner, that I had not thought of at all, and I just went for it.

In the past I have sometimes thought of Sophia as a cosmic mother, representing the whole world of form. I no longer have this sense. For me she operates at a more personal and human level. To name the world of form, and its relationship to empty awareness, I would rather work with the old Gaelic term Oran Mor (Great Song). Here – adopting auditory language – I am personally an ephemeral note, perhaps a brief tune, in the Great Song. Yet ultimately I, like you, am the timeless aware silence that contains the whole song, and which the song so beautifully fills.

And what is the The Way of Sophia? It is learning to live from the eternal silent centre, and lovingly offering my unique if passing note to the Oran Mor.

SOPHIA’S OPEN SECRET

There is a locked vault containing everything you’ve ever longed for – all the riches of the universe.

You spend your life trying to open the vault – through struggling, striving, meditating, transcending, guru-worshipping, believing, rejecting, accepting, praying, self-enquiring, yoga-ing, and so on and so forth.

Finally, exhausted, you give up trying to open the vault … and that’s when the vault opens by itself. It was never locked in the first place.

What’s inside the vault? This moment, exactly as it is.

You always knew. The Beloved calls us home in any way she can, and this ‘ordinary’ life is her ingenious invitation.

And the raindrops whisper that the enlightenment we seek is this unspeakable intimacy with the appearance of form, with this ever-changing watercolour scenery of life, its colours forever running into the gutters of emptiness. “Love us”, the raindrops whisper. “That’s all”. And still the raindrops keep falling and I walk on, embraced by a love with no name.

Jeff Foster Falling in love with where you are: a year of prose and poetry on radically opening up to the pain and joy of life Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013

NB: I have messed around a bit with Jeff Foster’s work, eliding sections from two separate entries and giving the result another title. All the words are his.

HUMAN

Some people, having vaguely heard of non-dual traditions, get a notion that they turn us away from our messy human lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are two brief passages by (respectively) a mid-twentieth century and a current non-dual teacher.

BEING AND BECOMING

“To be, to exist with a name and form is painful, yet I love it …. It is the instinct of exploration, the love of the unknown, that brings me into existence. It is in the nature of being to seek adventure in becoming, as it is in the very nature of becoming to seek peace in being.” Nisargadatta Maharaj.

 

SACRED WORK

Cherish your doubts. They are the seeds of Mystery.

Embrace your sadness. Great joy lies within.

Turn to face your fears. At their core lies peace beyond words.

Celebrate your boredom. It is radically alive.

Hold your grief. Let it break your heart wide open.

Befriend your anger. Know it intimately as the life power that burns suns.

Acknowledge your pain. It is the body’s plea for attention.

All feelings are deeply intelligent. Get out of their way.

Let them do their sacred, universal work.”

Jeff Foster Falling in love with where you are: a year of prose and poetry on radically opening up to the pain and joy of life Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013

HEADLESS AWEN?

In my current spiritual inquiry, I am exploring Douglas Harding’s ‘Headless Way’, now with some direct guidance from Richard Lang and the Shollond Trust. For me, the brief passage below suggests a re-framed view of what we Druids call Awen. It also feels very Sophian, so I’m finding my pointers to an integrated path. I just have to be patient as new understandings unfold and I learn better how to live them.

“Speaking from my own experience now, if I picture a writer here who is thinking up these words, the result is more-or-less mechanical, uninteresting, inappropriate.

“But to the extent that I experience these words moving spontaneously from the empty Awareness that I am, from the Tao, why then they have a more authentic ring. That is not forgetting myself in the heat of literary composition. Quite the contrary: it is being clearly Self-aware as the Tao, the formless origin of all form.” (1)

(1) Douglas Harding Religions of the world: A handbook for the open-minded London: Shollond Trust, 2014 (digital edition). Originally published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1966.

DEVON SPRING

A voice from the opening years of the twentieth century. The love of nature does not require any formal religion to give it spiritual meaning. The setting is Devon in south-west England, home to my mother and her forbears.

George Gissing was an established part of the literary scene in later Victorian Britain, though less well-known to the public than his friends Arthur Conan-Doyle and H.G. Wells. Indeed, he struggled both with his health and his finances throughout much of his working life, and died of TB whilst living in the south of France in 1903, aged 46. His themes include the professional and social consequences of embracing Darwinism and religious scepticism. His last and most popular novel, the Private Papers of Henry Rycroft, was published in the year of his death.

Rather poignantly, the private papers of the title are presented as the musings of an older writer who inherits enough money from an admirer to retire to a cottage just outside Exeter in Devon. He has nothing to do but enjoy himself in the countryside of his native land. The papers are arranged by the four seasons, moving from spring to winter. The passages below are late in the spring section, marking the transition to summer. My mother is from Exeter, and her parents were adults when this book was written.

MORNING AFTER MORNING

“Morning after morning, of late, I have taken my walk in the same direction, my purpose being to look at a plantation of young larches. There is no lovelier colour on earth than that in which they are now clad; it seems to refresh as well as gladden my eyes, and its influence sinks deep into my heart. Too soon it will change; already I think the first radiant verdure has begun to pass into summer’s soberness. The larch has its moment of unmatched beauty – and well for him whose chance permits him to enjoy it, spring after spring.

“Could anything be more wonderful than that fact that here am I, day by day, not only at leisure to walk forth and gaze at the larches, but blessed with the tranquility of mind needful for such enjoyment? On any morning of spring sunshine, how many mortals find themselves so much peace that they are able to give themselves wholly to delight in the glory of heaven and of earth?”

WALKING IN A FAVOURITE LANE

“Walking in a favourite lane today, I found it covered with shed blossoms of the hawthorn. Creamy white, fragrant even in ruin, lay scattered the glory of the May. It told me that spring is over.

“Have I enjoyed it as I should? Since the day that brought me freedom, four times have I seen the year’s new birth, and always, as the violet yielded to the rose, I have known a fear that I have not sufficiently prized this boon of heaven whilst it was with me.

“I recall my moments of delight, the recognition of each flower that unfolded, the surprise of budding branches clothed in a night with green. The first snowy gleam upon the blackthorn did not escape me. By its familiar bank, I watched for the earliest primrose, and in its copse I found an anemone. Meadows shining with buttercups, hollows sunned with the marsh marigold held me long at gaze. I saw the sallow glistening with its cones of silvery fur, and splendid with dust of gold. These common things touch me with more of admiration and of wonder each time I behold them. They are once more gone. As I turn to summer, misgiving mingles with joy.”

George Gissing The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft in The Complete Works of George Gissing Delphi Classics, Kindle edition 2012.

POEM: THE ONENESS OF THINGS

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

Colin Oliver Nothing But This Moment: Selected Poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

 

 

 

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