contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

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.)

 

METHODS IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY: PART 1

This post is about methods in contemplative inquiry. It is the second in a series looking at what forms of inquiry best serve our times. The first (1) concerned values. This is the first of three addressing methods. A final post will be about issues of interpretation. My focus below is on the ritual container for my early morning Temple of Sophia practice, and how it enacts the values discussed on 16 June.

I inaugurated the Temple on 22 March of this year, and described it at the time (2) as a “magical space”. As my inquiry has developed, I have tended to let go of words like ‘magic’, ‘mysticism’, ‘gnosis’ and ‘enlightenment’ as too imprecise and in a way too theatrical for my current purpose. Yet I stand by what I said at the time. In particular, I continue to understand myself as using “a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns”, the definition of magic I used in March. I use all five of the specific methods I listed: concentration, meditation, visualization, ritual patterning and mediation. I particularly want to re-emphasize a key point about replacing a deliberate, effortful style of concentration with one based on interest and excitement like the concentration of children at play. (If it doesn’t work, do something else). But the last of the five methods above is now reframed. Instead of ‘mediation’ I would talk about the state of empty awareness and its influence. In the Headless Way (3) the phrase “clear awake space, and capacity for the world” is often used to describe the state as both experience and resource.

On arrival in my Temple space, I stand in what will be the centre of my circle, facing East where the image of Sophia gazes back at me. I begin with words inherited from my Druid practice, because I strive for continuity and integration wherever possible. The words are from Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition, alternatively known at St. Patrick’s Prayer and the Cry of the Deer. They are a means of bringing in and expressing the humility and reverence I discussed as values in my last post, and are best declaimed slowly and spaciously.

I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.

I continue – again following modern Druid tradition – by calling for peace in the directions, and aligning myself to them:  May there be peace in the 7 directions – East, West, North, South, Below, Above, Within. May I be present in this space.

Then I circle sunwise, spinning slowly at the centre of the circle, extending my left arm at chest level, index finger pointing down and saying: I cast this circle in the Temple of Sophia. I continue to move sunwise round the circle, speaking as I reach the appropriate cardinal points:  I thank the Source for Land (North), Life (East), Light (South), and Love (West). May they continue to nourish me. My I continue to honour them. May the harmony of this circle and of my life be complete. When facing East again, I say: I open my heart to the Wisdom of Sophia. I do not use ‘Source’ and ‘Sophia’ as theological terms. They are a way of expressing gratitude and connection. The way we are made, the very social way in which our capacity for language has developed, create a yearning for I-Thou rather than I-It forms of relationship with the Cosmos and whatever we met here, without or within. It seems to me to be a first person need, and I notice that it doesn’t seem to require literal reciprocation.

This opens my Temple, and a mirroring reverse process closes it at the end. For me these processes are an important ritual patterning in themselves, setting the note of my day overall, and not just markers for the Temple space. Before I begin to close the circle and exit the Temple space, I perform a ‘blessings’ practice, which has some resemblance to Buddhist loving-kindness practice whilst not being the same. Here I extend my circle of care from the centre outwards, until it becomes universal. Again I have to say that OBOD Druidry has a culture of commitment to blessings and the energy of blessing, and I continue to hold to that culture. Elaine, named below, is my wife.

I say: A blessing on my life.  May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease – repeating the sequence for Elaine’s life, the lives of our kin, the lives of our companions, all lives I touch and am touched by and all beings throughout the Cosmos.  A blessing on our lives (arms raised); a blessing on the work (hands over heart); a blessing on the land (touching the ground).

I am not, after some hesitation on the matter, working within a set of formalized ethics. Rather, the culture of practice seeks to generate a patterning of awareness that supports choice-making based on a view of love and wisdom. Methods enact values, which are then taken out of the Temple precincts and into the wider world.

I will talk about my physical/energetic and contemplative work within the circle in a dedicated post. This will include a look at why I do the entire practice standing or moving, and also why and how stresses and pathologies are given their space and voice.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/values-in-contemplative-inquiry

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/sophian-magic-101

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

 

VALUES IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

What form of inquiry best serves our times and the kind of consciousness we carry? This post, focusing on values, is the first of five on the topic. The nest three will cover methods and the final post will concern issues of interpretation.

Wishing to deepen my own intent and practice, I have been identifying helpful resources. One of these is Arthur Zajonc’s Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love (1). Having dedicated my own contemplative inquiry to Sophia, I was delighted to discover, in Zajonc’s approach, a Sophian sensibility.

In Zajonc’s account the purpose of contemplative practice is to join insight and compassion, wisdom with love. Such a practice supports an awakening into what the New England sage Henry David Thoreau called the ‘poetic and divine life’.  Culturally, this means opening to an ecological world view, and a larger project of “embracing methods of inquiry that can accommodate the great advances of science but not be limited by the dogmatic perspectives of materialism and its associated economics”.  Now retired, Zajonc was until recently Professor of Physics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, also directing its Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society – see http://www.contemplativemind.org . He was involved with setting up the Mind and Life Institute (see https://www.mindandlife.org), which, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, is concerned with the scientific study of contemplative practice. As well as this he is a former General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, and his specific contemplative methods derive from the Steiner tradition.

Zajonc models a contemplative inquiry that is in and of the world, yet makes a clearly defined space for itself. On one hand he quotes Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary General 1953-61, as saying: “in our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action”. On the other he offers the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s warning that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times”.

Zajonc sees science/contemplation/insight/service as a package, which it clearly has been for him, and his own advice on approaching contemplative inquiry is to begin with an attitude of humility and reverence. For some, the route is prayer. For others, it is a sense of wonder and awe towards nature. In the latter respect, he quotes John Muir: “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves” (2). Whether prayer or nature be the contemplative’s aid, there will be a certain setting aside of self and the moral confusions of egotism.

At the same time, Zajonc is from a Western tradition and sees a strong sense of individuality as a gift rather than a problem. A certain ‘inner solitude’, which makes us all potential hermits in the clamour of daily life, leads to fuller relationships, connects us to the ‘depth’ of the other, and indeed cherishes the very solitude of the other: solitude and love go together. Despite the power that group practice can have, Zajonc believes that solo practice is more essential. Group practice can become a ‘crutch’. Groups themselves need to honour freedom and individuality, and Zajonc stresses that the moral conditions for contemplative practice cannot be and should not be imposed from outside. I was pleased to read this. This view of the relationship of individual to group is very much what we have practised in Contemplative Druidry over the last four years, and it has served us well.

In recommended forms of preparatory meditation, we learn to enhance our sensory awareness, and our inner relationships with earth, water, air and light. We also learn to put space around our ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. They no longer consume us. As we hold them in awareness, neither falling back into them nor repressing them, we move from the standpoint of our storying selves to a silent self who can observe these dramas from a distance and with compassionate understanding. This opens up contemplative space, and teaches generosity through an invitation to practice it on our own distressed and rejected parts. Here Zajonc quotes Rumi:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing

And invite them in

Be grateful for whoever comes

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Contemplative inquiry is first person inquiry, working from the perspective of what phenomenologists call ‘the subjective life world’, yet it also reaches out to develop I-Thou relationship with what is being contemplated. Instead of distancing itself from direct experience for the sake of objectivity, “contemplative inquiry does exactly the opposite. It seeks to engage direct experience, to participate more fully in the phenomena of consciousness. It achieves ‘objectivity’ in a different manner, namely through self-knowledge and what [the 18th century German polymath] Goethe, in his scientific writings, named a ‘delicate empiricism’”.

Zajonc affirms that nothing can reveal itself to us which we do not love, so every way of contemplative knowing becomes a way of loving. Every epistemology [theory of knowledge] becomes an ethic. For him, contemplative inquiry is built on nine characteristics. This is my reading of what they do. The first two, respect and gentleness, set the conditions for aware engagement. With the next two, intimacy and participation, engagement becomes relationship. The next three are about the contemplative observer’s own willingness to change: the vulnerability of openness makes this possible; transformation represents significant responsiveness and change. ‘Organ formation’ suggests radical change, the development of new capacities fully to meet what we are engaging with – in the way that our remote pre-human ancestors became sensitive to light and gradually developed eyes for seeing. We know that intensive long-term meditation can change the brain, and even in modest and less obvious ways we are changed by what we attend to.  Zajonc’s last two characteristics are illumination and insight – the fruits of contemplative inquiry.

All of this makes me feel like a child in this field, and this does have advantages – novelty, wonder, lots to learn and explore. For now, ‘delicate empiricism’ is a phrase to take to heart.

  • Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 2009
  • John Muir Our national parks Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1901

BOOK REVIEW: SPINNING IN PLACE

4163oG+V32L._AC_US160_Highly recommended: Spinning in Place is a clear and thought-provoking guide to the festival year from the perspective of a humanist/naturalist Pagan. Bart Everson describes it as not so much a ‘how to’ as a ‘why bother’ book, for “no-one can dictate what the festivals mean or how to observe them”.

What he offers is a narrative of how he works the widely adopted eight festival cycle in New Orleans, and “idiosyncratic encouragement” to “spin your own wheel”.  The reader he imagines is “an atheist, or perhaps a pantheist or an agnostic”, someone “without a strong belief in gods or supernatural powers”.  Yet, within this philosophical naturalism, he imagines also an interest in religion and spirituality – perhaps in the form of “being surprised by a sudden awakening” and entering upon “a quest for something more”. For me, it also has a value to anyone with an interest in the Wheel of the Year.

Everson makes two important points about the festivals in general. One is the sense of a holiday as more than a vacation – more than time off for relaxation and recreation, important though these are. A true holiday enshrines values, “reminding us again and again of certain existential truths”. Modern ‘Western’ style societies tend to be “mobile, rootless, divorced from the specific realities of a particular place … it’s my thought that if we spin in one spot for a while, dervish-like, perhaps we’ll corkscrew right down into the Earth and regain our sense of location.”

The second point to remember is that “seasonal variation happens according to its own schedule and not according to any calendar devised by humans.” When festivals become entrenched, “conventions have a tendency to become concretized in our minds, as if they were the primary reality rather than a convenient symbolic expression”. Everson invites an open and fresh approach to ritual celebration. This will of course include the repetition of loved and familiar patterns, but not imprisonment within them.

The book gives a chapter to each season, opening with December: Solstice Connections where the solstice is seen not as a Solar event (nothing happens to the sun) but an Earth-Solar event. Everson’s ritual year is about Earth and its cycles, celebrating an Earth spirituality. January/February: Searching the Depths remind us that there is no Nordic winter in New Orleans, and a Carnival season starting at Twelfth Night, with Mardi Gras any time from 3 February – 9 March. For Everson, it is the time for Candlemas and Brighid crosses. March: Spring in the Subtropics, Spring in the Self – and oak pollen on the porch a sure sign of the equinox. A theme of balance rather than excess: purification understood as “feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration”. April/May:  May Day x2 The Worker’s holiday matters as much as Beltane to Everson: celebration of revolutionary political desire, the notion of power to the imagination, the spiritual dimension of politics – “the sense of connection to Earth and humanity fuels outrage at manifest injustices”.

To begin the second half of the year we have June: Flowers to Flame, a time of sunshine and superabundance – yet at the same time, acknowledging limits set by nature. Flowers coming to full form, and flowers given over to the bonfire’s flames. Then comes July/August: How Lammas Changed my Life The warmth of the year has continued to increase. Everson remembers his first link to a local Pagan group, a Paganism for kids event to which he took his daughter. Making corn dollies. Still making them, and baking bread together. September: The Other Equinox is elusive as a season, though it is getting darker and it is the time of Lycoris radiata – naked ladies, red magic lilies, hurricane lilies locally. The hurricane season peaks on 10 September and goes on to 1 November. Themes of loss and darkness, yet also gratitude (rather than fear or denial). Making ‘gratitude garlands’, since gratitude is always for something and to someone. Finally, we have October/November: Dead Time where All Saints, All Souls and Dia de los Muertos are all celebrated locally. Everson talks both of celebrating ancestors’ night and what he calls “surfing the new spooky” – “there is something delectable about the spooky, something desirable, something necessary”.

Spinning in Place shows how to create a wheel of the year which honours tradition, place and personal history. This approach allows fluidity and responsiveness to environment, community and culture both past and present. It clearly works for Bart Everson. Spinning in Place does not offer an off the peg set of rituals. Rather, it asks readers to wonder what we might do, in our place, using our histories and our forms of expression. That’s what makes it inspiring.

 

Bart Everson Spinning in place: a secular humanist embraces the wheel of the year New Orleans, LA: Frowning Cat Books, 2016 (E-book available on Amazon Kindle)

 

 

DIRTY LOVE

Jeff Foster on ‘dirty love’ and the place of rawness in lives that we package as ‘spiritual’ – a word that sometimes goes with a certain kind of polish.

“Love is … a living, breathing, real-time reality. The poets and sages were right. …This love, this deep and ever present silence that you are, is so vast it swallows everything. It pays no heed to images of how it should be. It does not try to impress, it is not looking for rewards, acceptance or validation. It is not pretending to be transcendent, or fearless, or beyond pain, it has no use for the word ‘spiritual’ or ‘enlightened’, it does not act as if it’s above everything. It knows no bypassing, no clever tricks, no way to numb itself to itself. It gets its hands dirty.

“Yes, this is a dirty love. The unloved and unwanted and unmet get stuck under its fingernails. It wants all of its children, not just the pretty ones. It is the mother, the father, the lover, the guru we have always longed for. It loves because that’s all it knows. It would work its knuckles to the bones just to be here.

“We pretend to be fearless and beyond human concerns only because we are afraid. We act at being peaceful and undisturbed only because there is a storm inside. We strain to show others how far beyond anger we have gone, only because anger still rages within us, longing to be met. We show off our perfect spiritual know-ledge in public to mask our perfect private doubt. It’s a perfect balance.

“Who will stop pretending? Who will meet the ‘shadow’, the misunderstood ‘dark side’ of life, those waves of ourselves that are not inherently negative or sinful or dark, just neglected and abandoned and longing for home? Who will meet life’s orphaned children? Who will sacrifice the image for the delight of not knowing?

….

“Even the unwanted are wanted here in the vastness that we are. There is plenty of space. Beyond awakening, there is this grace, this inexplicable and heart-breaking timeless welcoming of everything as it arises. By dirtying itself until it cannot dirty itself any more, love purifies itself.”

 

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

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