contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: October, 2017

ORPHIC HYMN TO PERSEPHONE

An Orphic hymn to Persephone addresses her as the ‘much honoured spouse of Plouton’, who commands ‘the gates of Hades in the bowels of the earth’. ‘Queen of the nether world’, she reigns underground through four months of  winter, but the rest of the year, she is the ‘maiden rich in fruits, brilliant and horned, only beloved of mortals’. She nourishes us all, always, and kills us too. The hymn comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE in Pergamum, a city in modern Turkey. It offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.

Persephone, blessed daughter

of great Zeus, sole offspring

of Demeter, come and accept

this gracious sacrifice.

Much honoured spouse of Plouton,

discreet and life-giving,

you command the gates of Hades

in the bowels of the earth,

lovely-tressed Praxidike,

pure bloom of Deo,

mother of the Erinyes,

queen of the nether world, secretly sired by Zeus

in clandestine union.

Mother of loud-roaring,

many-shaped Eubouleus,

radiant and luminous,

playmate of the Seasons,

revered and almighty,

maiden rich in fruits,

brilliant and horned,

only beloved of mortals,

in spring you take your joy

in the meadow of breezes,

you show your holy figure

in grasses teeming with grass-green fruits,

in autumn you were made

a kidnapper’s bride.

You alone are life and death

To toiling mortals,

O Persephone, you nourish all,

Always, and kill them, too.

Hearken, O blessed goddess,

send forth the fruits of the earth

as you blossom in peace

and in gentle-handed health

bring a blessed life

and a splendid old age to him who is sailing

to your realm, O queen, and to mighty Plouton’s kingdom

Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction and Notes Baltimore: MD: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

The Orphic hymns date from a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.

TIMES AND SEASONS

Winter began for me yesterday, in a soft and gentle evening. Over a period of about an hour I watched the light drain from the sky on the final day of British Summer Time (BST). It didn’t feel much like winter, except through my feelings of farewell to the light. The experience was shot through with anticipation and letting go.

Next week’s Saturday will be different. Then, on the night of a full moon, sunset will happen just a little before 4.30 p.m. It may be a fine day, warm even. There will be leaves on trees, as the slow English fall continues. The morning will get lighter, sooner, than yesterday’s. But, for me, the early sunset makes it winter. It comes with the withdrawal of evening light.

Thanks largely to my time in Druidry, I have become sensitized to the ebb and flow of seasons, and eight, more-or-less evenly spaced, festivals that mark the wheel of the year. But I am also guided by clock time. I got my first wrist watch as an eighth birthday present, a time when I had already attended a very clock oriented school for some years. It wasn’t yet the era of the mobile phone, but clock consciousness was well-anchored then, as it is now. It is still with me. Likewise, light and darkness are very potent indicators, whatever else is going on. So even though it is beautiful and autumnal outside as I write at the new midday, winter has arrived.

I don’t have a neat, reciprocal experience at the opposite time of the year. Sunset is restored to about 5.30 p.m. before the end of February. I enjoy the returning light, but I don’t think about summer. It is generally cold by local standards, still liable to be frosty. BST is re-introduced at the end of March, just after the spring equinox. But my personal sense of spring starts at the equinox itself. It is a short season and ends with April. I find it a precious, poignant moment in the year.

My summer runs from the beginning of May, Beltane, right up to the autumn equinox. Autumn is another short (also precious, also poignant) season that ends for me with BST, close to Samhain. In my world, this current transition is the one with the greatest impact.

Throughout the year, one day leads to the next with small changes in the balance of light and dark, and small, incremental shifts for the land and its life. This remains true even as weather patterns get palpably more volatile and unpredictable – with bigger changes to come. Yet the naming of four seasons enriches my experience. The eight-fold wheel of the year and the clock time of modern culture combine to shape my year.

POEM: PIUTE CREEK

One granite ridge

A tree, would be enough

Or even a rock, a small creek,

A bark shred in a pool.

Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted

Tough trees crammed

In thin stone fractures

A huge moon on it all, is too much.

The mind wanders. A million

Summers, night air still and the rocks

Warm. Sky over endless mountains.

All the junk that goes with being human

Drops away, hard rock wavers

Even the heavy present seems to fail

This bubble of a heart.

Words and books

Like a small creek off a high ledge

Gone in the dry air.

 

A clear, attentive mind

Has no meaning but that

Which sees is truly seen.

No one loves rock, yet we are here.

Night chills. A flick

In the moonlight

Slips into Juniper shadow.

Back there unseen

Cold proud eyes

Of Cougar or Coyote

Watch me rise and go.

 

Gary Snyder. From The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness and Joy edited by John Brem. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017

 

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

I began my contemplative journey with a sense of mysticism, which I would now reframe as “attentiveness and wonder” (1). My path has become firmly this-worldly, a stance that has varied over the six years since I launched the inquiry, at a solo Samhain Druid ritual. The group practice that developed for contemplative Druidry was naturalistic from the beginning, finding the numinous within the mundane. The Buddhist sangha with which I am linked (2) is also world oriented. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of all that the earth contains, and a way of wisdom and compassion in every day life.

My path continues to be a contemplative inquiry. It is an inquiry, because I am in an open process of bringing my truth into being, a truth which remains provisional, agnostic, limited by my human horizons. Within this inquiry, contemplative methods both train the attention and open up spaces for wonder.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, initiator of the secular mindfulness movement, calls it ‘reverence’. For him this touches us when we are “transported by some marvelous strain of music, or when struck by the artistry of a great painting … I am speaking of the mystery of the very existence of an event or object, its ‘isness’. In the case of a work of art, even the artist can’t tell how it came about” (3). At such times, it is better leave words alone and allow our senses, and our feelings, to speak for themselves.

But Kabat-Zinn warns that, since we don’t have words for “ for such numinous and luminous feelings”, we often forget how prevalent they are in our experience. We can easily become inured to them and cease noticing that we even have such feelings or are capable of having them, so caught up we can be in a certain way of knowing to the exclusion of others.” (3). This provides one of my motivations for formal spiritual work (the others having to do with wisdom and compassion).  It helps to me to shake up the mindset that stops me from noticing. To speak of the results in an Existentialist’s language of ‘attentiveness and wonder’ works well for me, better than my older use of ‘mysticism’.

(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945 (first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962). Merleau-Ponty wrote in his preface: “Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing the truth into being. … It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valery or Cezanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or history as that meaning comes into being”.

(2) https://coiuk.org/

(3)Jon Kabat-Zinn Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion e-Book, 2005

POEM: THE GOOD DARKNESS

There is great joy in darkness.

Deepen it.

…..

Keep your deepest secret hidden

in the dark beneath daylight’s

uncovering and night’s spreading veil.

 

Whatever is given you by those two

is for your desires. They poison,

eventually. Deeper down, where your face

gets erased, where life water runs silently,

there’s a prison with no food and drink,

and no moral instruction, that opens on a garden,

where there’s only God. No self,

only the creation word BE.

 

You, listening to me, roll up the carpet

of time and space. Step beyond,

Into the one word.

In blindness, receive what I say.

Take ‘There is no good…’

for your wealth and strength.

Let ‘There is nothing’ be

a love-wisdom in your wine.

 

Sanai, in The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1993. (Translations from the poems of Sanai, Attar, Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz by Coleman Barks.

THE USES OF EMPTINESS

‘The bad news is we are falling, falling, falling … The good news is there’s no ground.’ (1)

I’m in a process of re-invention. This involves a major overhaul of spiritual outlook. I’m grateful to be aided in this by Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 revision of the Heart Sutra and commentary (2), just recently published. It gives me pictures of where I’ve been and where I am now: a sort of before and after.

Here is the ‘before’. “At the time of the Buddha, the idea of a divine self was a belief common to most of the traditions of Indian practice. People believed that underneath all the changes that we observe in ourselves, there is something that doesn’t change, a kind of immortal soul, or essence, called atman or ‘self’. People believed that after the physical body disintegrated, the soul would continue in another physical body, and that it would go through many cycles of death and rebirth in order to learn the lesson it needed to learn. The aim of spiritual practice was to reunite the small self, atman, with the great self, the absolute sublime self, which they called Brahman.”

A view of this kind underpins Aldous Huxley’s understanding of a perennial wisdom (3) and is now central to New Age spirituality. Some versions include reincarnation or forms of personal afterlife. Others don’t. I have been intermittently attracted to those that don’t, or don’t necessarily. I have never followed Advaita Vedanta, the specific path described above, but I have been involved in Tantra, and with Western equivalents through Jung, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, the Celtic Twilight Theosophy of OBOD (4), and the modernized presentation of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). But I have never been truly comfortable with any form of theism, however esoteric or non-dual. Over the last several months I have decisively changed my stance.

My ‘after’ is also described in Thich Nhat Hahn’s new commentary. “When the Buddha began to teach, he challenged this belief. He taught that there is nothing we can call a self. This was the beginning of a revolution. He showed us that a phenomenon is just a manifestation of various causes and conditions. Nowhere in that phenomenon is there anything permanent and unchanging – whether you call it atman or Brahman, whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there. His teaching was aimed at undermining both the idea of an individual self and that of a universal self.”

This view of emptiness is further clarified for me by another modern translator’s commentary on a first century Buddhist text, from which the Heart Sutra draws inspiration. “Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics … says [that], what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions.” (6) We naively treat things as distinct, separate and substantial. Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna saw this as a root delusion lying at the basis of human suffering. “For Nagarjuna this point is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness behind phenomena”.

“To say that trees, for example, are ‘empty’ prompts the question: ‘empty of what?’ And the answer is empty of inherent existence, or of self-nature, or in more Western terms of essence. Their existence as separate, unitary beings, depends on perception and naming. Hence the emptiness of a tree: “The boundaries of the tree, both spatial and temporal (consider the junctures between root and soil, or leaf and air; between live and dead wood; between seed, shoot and tree); its identity over time (each year it sheds leaves and grows new ones; some limbs break; new limbs grow); its existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc., are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind. Searching for a tree that is independent and which is the bearer of its parts, we come up empty”.

In his own analysis, Thich Nhat Hanh continues: “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. To turn emptiness into an ontological essence, to call it the ground of all that is, is not correct. Emptiness is not an eternal, unchanging ontological ground. We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It is not any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. That is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty”. This stops turning emptiness into Emptiness, and standing as a ghostly Brahman or mysterious Void. The point is necessary because this has indeed happened within the Buddhist tradition – leading to widely held doctrines of world negation.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, “the insight of interbeing is about that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’. All phenomena bear the mark of being inherently empty of a separate existence, both in time and space.

This is a blessing. It is our opportunity to exist and thrive. Thich Nhat Hanh says: “to be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change. We should not be afraid of emptiness, impermanence or change. We should celebrate them.    When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope that it will become a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

A commentator on another Buddhist classic (7) talks about the implications of emptiness for how we experience the world: “the transformation of consciousness is a constant flow. If you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation. The first thing these verses give us is a sense of wonder about what we are experiencing right now, a sense that our most basic understanding of where and what we are in the world is not quite right, that we are instead involved in a mysterious, flowing unfolding. … The Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help. This is a way of being these verses offer to you.”

(1)? Chogyam Trungpa or Pema Chodron

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(3)Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy: an Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West New York: HarperCollins, 2004 (Perennial Classics Edition)

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

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

(6) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(7) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: a practitioner’s guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I’ve been questing a name for my stance in the world. At this point in my journey, I can’t think of myself either as either a Druid or a Buddhist, despite the importance of these movements in my life. But to keep saying this is enervating and dis-empowering. I want a name, a positive name. I want it to affirm my current values with the creative focus of a new identification. I have ended with Existentialism – with the proviso that I need to customize my own 21st century version. Here’s how I reached this point.

First, I turned from the realms of spirituality and religion and looked to philosophy – specifically the Western tradition bearing that name, which means ‘love of wisdom’ (philo – sophia). This emerged over two and a half millennia ago in ancient Greece, where “philosophy was not, initially anyway, something to be studied in isolation by a group of specialists, but rather the expression of a way of life” (1). As such, it covered areas we still call by Greek names: therapeutics, ethics, aesthetics, politics. It asked basic questions that we face in our lives. It suggested physical and spiritual exercises and dietary regimes aimed at the good life. It included ‘natural philosophy’, the basis of our science. Over time, rival schools of philosophy sprang up – Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Cynic, Sceptic.

According to one of its champions, Existentialism is “arguably the only contemporary form of philosophy that remains true to the conception of philosophy first articulated” in ancient Greece (1). As a movement, Existentialism lasted for only a brief period in the mid twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre provided the name and was the only person who habitually used it of himself. Other people associated with the group were Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Only Merleau-Ponty was a full-time academic. The other Existentialists were better known for their involvement in politics and literature – fiction, drama, and journalism. Albert Camus said,” if you want to be a philosopher, write novels”.

The Existentialists were a diverse group with certain themes in common: living without God; freedom; others and otherness; anxiety; finitude; the absurd; authenticity; oppression. They struck a chord in an age of totalitarianism, world war, holocaust, nuclear warfare (actual and threatened) and anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Buddhism’s dukkha becomes Existentialism’s angst, here worn almost like a badge of honour, a price of the human condition. This condition is one of self-conscious awareness, simultaneously free and compelled to make choices without divine sanction, in the absence of any cosmic template or plan. Existence precedes essence: we must make ourselves.

Existentialism both looks back from this historical moment and points forward from it. The looking back is to the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Soren Kierkegaard came down in favour of religion out of loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence. For him, to ‘exist’ is to face the uncertainties of the world and commit oneself passionately to a way of life. Fyodor Dostoevsky is sometimes classed as another religious Existentialist in the way that he chose Russian Orthodoxy over Nihilism.

Moving into the 20th century, we find the development of ‘phenomenology’ as a scholarly attempt to learn from within the ‘life-world’, the subjective and inter-subjective realm, the insider’s view of existence, at a time when most academic endeavours adopted an objective, scientific, observer stance. Martin Heidegger, its best-known practitioner, is considered an Existentialist. The later French Existentialists drew inspiration from these earlier sources, but this didn’t involve taking on specific religious or political beliefs. They stood in a French republican tradition that was atheist and of the left.

Looking forward, Existentialism contributed to later Feminist and post-colonial perspectives. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was ground breaking in the 1950’s, whilst needing to be moved on from in subsequent decades. Existentialism has informed the politics of identity, though in itself also thought of as superseded by poststructuralist, postmodernist and other more recent currents. It appears to have done its job. But I’m not so sure. I was born during the heyday of French Existentialism. I am drawn to the term and I feel like taking this tradition and updating it for myself.

I thought of using the qualifier eco-existentialism, but the term is already used in eco-psychology and I have also spotted it in a business context, concerned with individual choice in creating sustainable households. I think I will stick with the single word Existentialist. It’s long enough. I want it to  incorporate practices of mindfulness and compassion and to be Earth centred. The Spell of the Sensuous (2) draws on Merleau-Ponty’s later work to demonstrate how an animist mindset makes sense: it is necessary to human perception even when apparently repressed and denied. Animist Existentialism? I believe that it is quite possible for me to live and affirm an Existentialism adjusted to 21st. century conditions and understandings. Names do matter to me, when I can mobilize around them. This one somehow makes me feel lighter and more resourceful. The magic of naming!

(1) Thomas E. Wartenburg Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide Oxford: Oneworld, 2008

(2) David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

THE VERY EARLIEST TIME

The words of Nalungiaq, an Inuit woman interviewed by the ethnologist Knud Rasmussen early in the twentieth century.

In the very earliest time

when both people and animals lived on earth,

a person could become an animal if he wanted to

and an animal could become a human being.

Sometimes they were people

and sometimes animals

and there was no difference.

All spoke the same language.

That was the time when words were like magic.

The human mind had mysterious powers.

A word spoken by chance

might have strange consequences.

It would suddenly come alive

and what people wanted to happen could happen –

all you had to do was say it.

Nobody could explain this:

That’s the way it was.

Quoted in: David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

 

HOW TO FLOURISH

In an earlier post (1) I began a discussion about personal vows, and how they support of our flourishing. The key is to identify specific intentions about how we want to live, to declare them and then to work with them. In this context, it is important that they are personal and not connected to a third party or cause. We decide them for ourselves. We interpret them ourselves. We monitor them ourselves. It is an inner authority that gives them their power.

Later (2) I discussed the ancient Greek concept of ‘virtue ethics’ as a rationale for this approach. I would probably not use this label for myself. Modern English gives ‘virtue’ as slightly pious and solemn ring. It suggests the possibility of presenting an inauthentic front, not present in the earliest understandings. These concerned crafting a life with self-awareness and cultivating desired qualities and skills. The emphasis is on process and practice

In both posts I described personal work using this method. I have now completed a set of five vows, which for me seems like the maximum to work with. They are notes to myself as I move through time and chance, enough to set directions, but not enough to regulate specific conduct in specific situations. The core idea is to improve my own quality of life and that of others.

 

May I be mindful, open hearted and creative

May I honour and enjoy the gift of life, in my sensing, feeling, thinking, and intuition

May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others

May I experience abundance in simplicity

May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as through supporting larger projects

 

I believe in these vows, whilst knowing that I will not fulfil them all the time, or in the fullest measure. Yet I do expect them to make a difference. I have already opened myself to continuous learning about what the key value words mean in practice. How do I recognize, in sensory, behavioural and social terms: my mindfulness, open heartedness, creativity, honouring, enjoyment, love, compassion, abundance, simplicity and welfare?

If I am not actively in process with them, these words can fade into pompous rhetoric. Worse still, they could become ammunition in a form of virtue signaling. Meanings themselves may vary in different contexts, and one aspect of ‘creativity’, will be sensitivity to different circumstances, and flexibility within them.

I have been working with personal vows for a couple of months now, long enough to get used to the process and develop what seems like the full set using the best language. Although these vows draw on my life in both Druid and Buddhist settings, they are personal. I do not see them as belonging either to a Druid or a Buddhist path. They are about mindful living in a re-enchanted world They are my personal guide on how to flourish.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/virtues-and-vows/

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

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