contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: October, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: ZEN FOR DRUIDS

jhp574843867221aIn this user-friendly book, Joanna van der Hoeven further develops ideas already present in her earlier ones, especially Zen Druidry. On my reading, this book will work best for Druids committed to a modern eco-spirituality. I imagine readers already re-enchanted by their experience of the natural world, who want a harmonious relationship with that world, and to honour, protect and preserve it. Zen for Druids confirms this stance and adds something else: the interwoven ethical and attentional training of the Buddhist tradition.

The author draws specifically on Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master who founded the Community of Interbeing and is a leading model and exponent of ‘engaged Buddhism’. This cultivates personal, social and ecological levels of awareness. It recognizes the radical interdependence of all beings and a need to make ethical/political choices in line with this interdependence. Such Buddhism is not in any way world denying, in the way that Buddhist tradition has at times been in the past. I see Thich Nhat Hanh as a perfect source of influence for this book, and several of his own works are cited in the bibliography.

Zen for Druids is divided into five parts. The first is a clear exposition of Buddhist basics, helped by that tradition’s own style of clear exposition and list making. It includes chapters on the three treasures, the four noble truths, the five basic precepts for lay Buddhists, the eightfold path and the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. By age-old Buddhist design, there is a certain amount of repetition in these lists, with the same issues coming up again in slightly different contexts. Each individual chapter ends with a set of questions designed to engage the reader in their own reflections.

The second part moves through the eightfold wheel of the year, frequently found as a festival year in Druid and Pagan communities. Each festival is given its own chapter, and each chapter combines traditional Druid and Pagan themes with a principle from the Buddhist eightfold path. The author starts at Samhain (right effort), moves on to the Winter Solstice (right mindfulness), Imbolc (right concentration), Spring Equinox (right intention), Beltane (right view), Summer Solstice (right action), Lughnasadh (right speech) and the Autumn Equinox (right livelihood). Each section is followed by a list of suggestions for practice.

The book’s remaining three parts are shorter. They concern, respectively, meditation, mindfulness and integration. In two chapters on meditation, the first explores ‘mind traps’ – “those little prisons of our own making. We are constantly hijacked by our thoughts and feelings, attachments to them and our egos, such that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down”. The second shows us to how do a brief meditation session in the Zen manner. The following section, concerning mindfulness in the world, suggests a practice of ‘mindful Mondays’ and explores the relationship between present time awareness and an animist world view. The final section, on integration, focuses on our integration with nature, looking at the issue of ‘ego, self and identity’ before reflecting on ‘awen and relationship’. For Joanna van der Hoeven, indeed, “awen is relationship and integration, the connecting threads that bind us soul to soul”.

In Zen for Druids, one Druid shows how she has taken an iteration of Zen Buddhism into her life and practice, combining them into one path. She sets out her stall very clearly and offers the reader specific opportunities and resources for practice and reflection. This book does a valuable job well.

Joanna van der Hoeven Zen for Druids: a further guide to integration, compassion and harmony with nature Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2016

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STROKE OF INSIGHT

On a December morning in 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor – a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School – experienced a stroke in the left side of her brain. “Within four brief hours, I watched my mind completely deteriorate in its ability to process information. By the end of that morning, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. Curled up into a little fetal ball, I felt my spirit surrender to my death, and it certainly never dawned on me that I would ever be capable of sharing my story with anyone”.

Her book, My stroke of insight is a product of this experience. Bolte Taylor describes it as “a weaving of my academic training with personal experience and insight. As far as I am aware, this is the first documented account of a neuroanatomist who has completely recovered from a severe brain hemorrhage”. Much of the book, which moves elegantly between first and third person perspectives, is focused on stroke, stroke survival, recovery and health advocacy. I am not here reviewing the book as a whole. I am focusing on the spiritual journey at its heart, which I see as having major contemplative interest.

Early in her stroke experience Bolte Taylor tried to work out what was going on. What was happening in her brain? “The harder I tried to concentrate, the more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. In place of that constant chatter that had attached me to the details of my life, I felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria. How fortunate I was that the portion of my brain that registered fear, the amygdala, had not reacted with alarm to these unusual circumstances and shifted me into a state of panic. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace. In this void of higher cognition and details pertaining to my normal life, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will. In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it”.

She was ready to lie down on her waterbed and simply drift away, but it was not to be. “Resounding like thunder from deep within my being, a commanding voice spoke clearly to me: If you lie down now you will never get up.” Just in time, Bolte Taylor found the will and capacity to dial a phone number and mumble into the ears of a close work colleague, who immediately drove to her house. Her slow journey back into the linguistic and social world – at times a reluctant one – was about to begin. It was clear that that this would not be a simple return to life before the stroke. It would have to be something new.

“My escape into bliss was a magnificent alternative to the daunting sense of mourning and devastation I felt every time I was coaxed back into some type of interaction with the percolating world outside of me. … It was clear that the ‘I’ whom I had grown up to be had not survived this neurological catastrophe. I understood that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning, and yet, with that said, who was left? Or, with my left hemisphere destroyed, perhaps I should now say, who was right? Without a language center telling me: ‘I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuroanatomist. I live at this address and can be reached at this phone number’, I felt no obligation to be her any more … Now that I didn’t know her life … I was no longer bound to her decisions or self-induced limitations … Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain. She was passionate about her work and advocacy. She was intensely committed to living a dynamic life. But, despite her likeable and even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility. I had forgotten about my brother and his illness. I had forgotten about my parents and their divorce. I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress – and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy. I had spent a life-time of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to ‘do-do-doing’ lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply ‘being’”.

It took eight years for Jill Bolte Taylor to make a complete recovery from her stroke, and she is clear about what she has learned. “Prior to this experience with stroke, the cells in my left hemisphere had been capable of dominating the cells in my right hemisphere. The judging and analytical character in my left mind dominated my personality. When I experienced the hemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my self, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a very clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely connected to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world”

Bolte Taylor now wants to maintain a “healthy balance” between both the functional abilities of the two hemispheres, and also “to have more say over which character dominates my perspective at any given moment”. Her left brain is now ‘normal’ again. It perceives the shorter wavelengths of light, increasing its ability to clearly delineate sharp boundaries – adept at identifying separation lines between adjacent entities. It tunes into the higher frequencies of sound, supporting the development and use of language. It speaks constantly, weaves stories, processes information with remarkable speed and efficiency, maintains personal identity and communicates with the outside world. The right brain thinks in collages and images. Responding to the longer wave lengths of light, its visual perception is blended and softened, with a lack of edge that allows it to dwell on the bigger picture and how things relate to one another. It tunes in to the lower frequencies of sound that are readily generated by our body gurgles and other natural tones. It is biologically designed to readily tune in to our physiology. Bolte Taylor says, “I’m having a big love-fest with the fifty trillion molecular geniuses making up my body. I am so grateful that they are alive and working together in perfect harmony that I implicitly trust them to bring me health”. Quoting a saying that ‘peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve’, Bolte Taylor takes this to mean that “we should stem from the peaceful consciousness of our right mind and use the skills of our left mind to interact with the external world”.

Towards the end of the book there are specific recommendations for the rebalancing of consciousness. These include: interrupting negative self-talk or replacing it with vivid imagery; coming back to the here-and-now (where the right brain always dwells) though sensory stimulation, music, deep body massage, or simply walking in the rain. Bolte Taylor also touches on energy dynamics and intuition, seeing them as right brain qualities unrecognized by the left. She says, “our right hemisphere is designed to perceive and decipher the subtle energy dynamics we perceive intuitively … Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by how people, places and things feel to me energetically. In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along by the current of my chatty story-teller. Intuitively, I don’t question why I am subconsciously attracted to some people and situations, and yet repelled by others. I simply listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts.”

Jill Bolte Taylor’s message is a simple invitation to tend the garden of the mind from a standpoint of compassion towards self, others and the wider world. It is hardly new or surprising. It is the nature, integrity and inner authority of this individual journey that mark it out.

Jill Bolte Taylor My stroke of insight: a brain scientist’s personal journey London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY

Two months ago I wrote a about Thomas Traherne (1), pointing out an unexpected resonance between this seventeenth century English clergyman and the ideas of Douglas Harding (2). Only later did I discover that such parallels had already been noted – particularly by Alan Mann (3) and also The Incredible String Band, way back in the 1960’s (4).

Thanks to Alan Mann, I subsequently found my way to the Thomas Traherne Association (5) and attended the Traherne’s Day Celebrations on 10 October at Hereford Cathedral. These were built around a choral Evensong followed by a lecture. The speaker was the Revd Dr Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University. Prof Fiddes has a particular interest in the relations between theology and literature, and his topic was The Poetics of Desire in Thomas Traherne and C. S. Lewis.

Lewis admired Traherne, especially the Centuries of Meditations, though he felt that Traherne was insufficiently concerned with original sin and too ready to find heaven in the here and now. For Traherne wrote that every person “is alone the Centre and Circumference of [Infinity]. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie.” (6). He also wrote at the time when the Royal Society was founded and what we now call Science became respectable. Traherne followed progress with the telescope and microscope and the worlds they were beginning to reveal. Perhaps such developments and the inquiries they opened up encouraged him to write the lines:

“Heaven surely is a State and not a Place

To be in Heaven’s to be full of Grace.

Heaven is where’re we see God’s face.” (6)

and

“This busy, vast, enquiring Soul

Brooks no Controul,

No limits will endure,

Nor any Rest: It will all see

Not Time alone, but ev’n Eternity”. (6)

At the same time, Prof. Fiddes’ lecture showed how Lewis was at one with Traherne in apprehending a God who is present in human imagination and creativity – Traherne’s words being, “for God hath made you able to Creat Worlds in your own mind, which are more Precious unto Him that those which He created”. Perhaps reflections like this freed Lewis’ own imagination in his fiction:

“Each grain is at the centre. The dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there… Blessed be He! Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Because we are with him, each, each of us is at the centre … there seems no centre because it is all centre … “(7)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (8)

It was C.S. Lewis who helped Douglas Harding find a publisher for The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth and wrote the introduction to it. My knowledge of this link was a prompt to attend the Traherne Day lecture, though I might have gone any way. I was brought up in the Church of England, and C.S. Lewis had a place in my imaginative hinterland. So did metaphysical poetry (though not especially Traherne’s), before I parted ways. I enjoyed Evensong last Monday, especially hearing the choir. Whilst feeling no pull to re-communicate, I felt very much at peace both with the aspect of heritage and that of spiritual community. This was a blessing in itself, and I am grateful for the occasion and to the people who made it happen.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/seeing-thomas-traherne

(2) headless.org

(3) capacitie.org

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2m7rYjZ54

(5) thomastraherneassociation.org

(6) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

(7) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra London: Bles, 1943

(8) C.S. Lewis The Last Battle London: Collins, 1956

(9) Douglas Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the universe London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (Introduction by C.S. Lewis)

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON

14606507_342051356186231_2360625875228974566_nHighly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.

At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.

In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:

“The sinking blade lit like lightening.

Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,

Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows

Into pure white light.”

Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:

“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron

Into his hand,

Escaped like a thief into the night

With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces

Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”

Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.

Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium.  The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:

You come mouthing words.

There are burnt out cities in your mouth.

The vocabulary of sign language

Cannot convey the stories

You need to tell.

There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.

Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”

There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.

 

Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.

BUDDHA FAILED

Here is the late Tantric teacher Osho’s take on Gautama Siddhartha’s awakening.

“Buddha failed absolutely. After six years he was completely frustrated, and when I say completely, then I mean completely. Not even a single fragment of hope remained; he became absolutely hopeless. In that hopelessness he dropped all effort. He had already dropped the world, he had already left his kingdom; all that belongs to this visible world he had left, renounced.

“Now after six years of strenuous effort he also left all that belongs to the other world. He was in a complete vacuum – empty.  That night his sleep was of a different quality because there was no ego; a different quality of silence arose because there was no effort; a different quality of being happened to him that night because there was no dreaming.

“That night, when there was nothing to be done – this world was already useless, now the other world was also useless – all motivation to move ceased. There was nowhere to go and there was no one to go anywhere. That night sleep became samadhi, it became satori; it became the ultimate thing that can happen to a man. Buddha flowered that night and in the morning he was enlightened. He opened his eyes, looked at the last star disappearing in the sky, and everything was there. It had always been there, but he had wanted it so much that he couldn’t see it. It had always been there, but he had been moving so much in the future with desire that he could not look at the here and now.

“That night there was no desire, no goal, nowhere to go, and no one to go anywhere – all effort ceased. Suddenly he became aware of himself, suddenly he became aware of reality as it is.”

 

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

SMALL MAGIC

 

Feeling refreshed and inspired after a contemplative day retreat yesterday. The day included a session on contemplative drawing led by artist and illustrator Tom Brown*.

The session mostly involved playing with charcoal under Tom’s twinkly enabling eye. This freed me up in a number of ways and towards the end of the session I changed medium and wrote this poem.

Treescape after rain

Blue

behind

these pinpricks of light

In a pattern of Michaelmas leaves

Still lush and green

for now.

 

Heartache

In a good way.

Nothing lost, exactly, or forgotten,

But a poignant, fragile sense.

Such vulnerability.

*To get a flavour of Tom’s work, see http://gothicmangaka.tumblr.com.