contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

BEYOND MINDFULNESS?

“Mindfulness alone” (1) can’t offer “stable, enduring peace and well-being because it’s a state of mind you believe you have to cultivate, sustain and protect. … Like every other mind-state, mindfulness is impermanent and arises and passes away depending on the strength and consistency of your practice. … In fact, the very notion that your mind needs to be settled and calmed or that negative emotions need to be eliminated, based on some predetermined standard of how your mind should look, marks a major distinction between the path of mindfulness and the direct approach of awakened awareness.

“From the perspective of unconditional openness, every thought that arises, no matter how seemingly negative or discordant, is welcomed just as it is, and this very welcoming reveals an equanimity that can’t be disturbed even by the most negative experiences. By not preferencing one mind-state over another, so-called positive over so-called negative, awakened awareness moves beyond dualistic thinking to encompass life fully, in all its richness and complexity. Yet awakened awareness is not a state you can cultivate, but your natural state that’s always already available and just needs to be acknowledged and accessed.

“For all its wonderful benefits, the practice of mindfulness … tends to maintain a subject-object split, the gap between the one who’s being mindful, the act of being mindful, and the object of mindful attention. In other words, no matter how mindful you become, there’s always a you that has to practice being mindful of an object separate from you. As a result, mindfulness perpetuates the very sense of separateness it’s designed to overcome. … you may eventually discover that you are trapped in the detached witnessing position … Witnessing has become another identity or point of view that you ultimately have to relinquish.”

For many years Stephan Bodian practised mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. He found it very beneficial. He became calmer and “more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life”. Customary anxiety was replaced by ease and contentment. Stephen found that his concentration deepened, he live more in the moment, and his relationships improved. “From a nervous intellectual, I was transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.”

What’s not to like? After long years immersed in a culture of mindfulness – including a teaching role – Stephen discovered a sense of feeling disengaged from life, as if experiencing it at a distance, his meditations themselves seeming somehow dry and lacking in energy. His teacher told him to meditate more. After “considerable soul searching” Stephan left the monastic life to study Western psychology. “I knew there were other ways of working with the mind and heart, and I wanted to learn what they had to offer”.

Looking back, Stephan still finds mindfulness valuable – but not enough. Some of the problems are cultural rather than intrinsic. A goal oriented culture turns the practice into a method for achieving goals and part of a self-development project. Yet it can also be a bridge. It can “take you beyond mindfulness to your natural state of awakened awareness”.

The term ‘awakened awareness’ is not used to describe another mental state. It is an attempt, using the compromised medium of language, to point to “the deepest level of reality” which is “the ground of openness in which everything arises. Whether or not you recognize it, it is always already the case. At the experiential level, however, awakened awareness does not dawn in your life until you realize that this ground of awareness is your natural state, in fact, is who you really are. This shift from recognizing awareness as a function, to recognizing awareness as the ground, to realizing it to be your fundamental nature and identity, is the awakening that the great spiritual masters describe.”

I’ve been moved by Stephan Bodian’s account. It reminds me of the time I spent working with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (2), which I have pulled back from over the last year. I’m very clear, now, that there’s something limiting for me about conventional mindfulness meditation. I have decided to work experientially in this area as the major focus of my personal contemplative inquiry. Fortunately, there are now many ‘Direct Path’ teachers to turn to – Stephan Bodian being one of them. One advantage of the digital age is that gathering resources and contacts in the field of spiritual teaching has been made so easy.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: the Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

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

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BOOK REVIEW: GWYN AP NUDD

Highly Recommended. Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie, Guardian of Annwfn, by Danu Forest, is a recent offering in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. Gwyn is well-known as the guardian of Glastonbury Tor displaced by St. Michael, but not widely understood. The author’s strategy is to explore Gwyn “through his various forms and tales, from King of the faeries, and lord of the forest, to guardian of the underworld and leader of the dead”. Deepening into her subject, she also suggests “ways to walk with our own darkness on our quest for our own Awen, our souls and our own self-knowledge, diving into the depths and drinking from the great cauldron until we arise at last reborn and radiant, filled with the light within the land”.

Gwyn is divided into five chapters, each of which offers an account of some aspect of Gwyn based on the traditional sources available to us. Each also provides opportunities for personal practice, through guided meditations, prayer, the making of offerings, space cleansing, saining or some other means. The whole book ends with an initiation. Although short and introductory, it is a practitioner’s book and, for me, provides enough input for people to develop and customize their work on a continuing journey.

The book includes a great deal of valuable information. The old sources are richly suggestive in images and themes, but difficult to organize into a coherent narrative. Indeed, coherent narrative is hardly true to the subject, and would likely miss the mark. I found that the chosen chapter divisions worked well for me as means of presenting the material without over-systematizing it. We begin by meeting Gwyn as the ‘white son of mist’, and are then taken into his connections with Annwfn and the Brythonic Faerie folk – the Tylwyth Teg. The other three chapters look at the imagery and meaning of the glass castle; Gwyn’s role in the Mabinogion; and at Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead.

The author relies both on scholarship and intuition in making connections, and lets us know which method she is using in specific cases. I like her transparency of process and the permission it gives to readers to awaken their own Awen when engaging with this material. In this way Danu Forest honours the commitment to provide a portal, and not just a text. For readers willing to make the effort, this book has the power to come alive in their hands. For others, it will provide a wealth of material on Gwyn and demonstrate his continuing relevance for our time. Either way, it’s a skillfully crafted piece of work, and well worth adding to our libraries.

Danu Forest Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie Guardian of Annwfn Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2017

FINDING PEACE AND HAPPINESS

“The dissolution of the mind’s limitations, which is itself the experience of peace or happiness … takes place momentarily on the fulfilment of a desire, when the mind’s activity of seeking comes briefly to an end, and, as a result the mind plunges into its source and briefly tastes the unconditional peace and inherent fulfilment of its true nature. After this experience of peace or happiness, the mind, on rising again within the ocean of consciousness, usually attributes the fulfilment that it experienced to the object, substance, activity or relationship that preceded it, and therefore seeks the same experience again.

“Although these brief moments give the mind samples of the lasting peace and happiness it desires, they never fully satisfy it. At some point it begins to dawn on the mind that it is seeking peace and happiness in the wrong place. This intuition may occur spontaneously as a result or repeatedly failing to secure happiness in objective experience, or as a result of a moment of despair or hopelessness when the mind, having exhausted the possibilities of finding fulfilment in objective experience, finds itself at a loss and, with no known direction in which to turn, stands open, silent and available. In this availability the mind is receptive to the silent attraction of its innermost being, drawing it backwards, inwards and selfwards, a call that is always present but usually obscured by the clamour of its own seeking.

The unwinding of the mind may also be effected in more extreme moments of great fear, sorrow or loss, when the coherence of the mind is temporarily disturbed, and it is ‘thrown back’ into its original condition, a fact that the Tantric traditions have developed into a series of formal practices in which the mind surfs intense emotion back to the shore of awareness. It can also be brought about by moments of heightened pleasure, such as sexual intimacy, when the mind is expanded beyond its customary confines by the intensity of the experience and, as a result, tastes the nectar of its own immortality.

“In fact, from this perspective, the experience of pleasure, normally the enemy of spiritual realisation in the religious traditions, is considered a taste of pure consciousness. In the moment of aesthetic pleasure, the wandering mind is brought to bear so intimately on the object of perception as to merge with it. In this merging the mind briefly loses its limitations, and in essence of pure consciousness shines. That is the experience of beauty. It is the experience that the artist seeks to evoke, and to which Paul Cezanne referred when he said he wanted to give his art to give people a sense of nature’s eternity.

…..

“This dissolution can also be solicited, invoked or fostered in meditation or prayer; likewise, through a conversation or a passage in a book, through words that are informed by and infused with its silence. Or it may be precipitated by a question such as

“’Are you aware?

“’What is the nature of the one you call I?

“’What is the nature of the knowing with which you know experience?

“Likewise, the mind may be drawn spontaneously into its source of unlimited consciousness simply by the silent presence of a friend in whom the recognition of their true nature has taken place, without the need for conversation.”

Rupert Spira The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter Oxford: Sahaja Press, 2017

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

GARY SNYDER: ‘WILD’

“The word wild is like a grey fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of site. Up close, first glance, it is ‘wild’ – then further into the woods next glance it’s ‘wyld’ and it recedes and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Tuetonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Tuetonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage) and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin ferus (feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s ‘awful ferity’ shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly

Of plants – not cultivated

Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated

Of foodcrops – produced or yielded without cultivation

Of societies – uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government

Of individuals – unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”, 1614

Of behavior – violent, destructive, cruel, unruly

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild” – John Milton

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what – from a human standpoint – it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what is is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living in natural systems

Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities

Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of non-human forces. Pristine.

Of foodcrops – food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit and seeds

Of societies – societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist political and economic domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem

Of individuals – following local custom, style and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent

Of behavior – freely resisting any oppression, confinement or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, ‘bad’, admirable.

Of behavior – artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic

Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases, we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.”

Gary Snyder The Practice of the Wild Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990

In a preface to the 2010 edition, Gary Snyder describes his path as “a kind of old time Buddhism which remains connected to animist and shamanist roots. Respect for all living beings is a basic part of that tradition. I have tried to teach others to meditate and enter into the wild areas of the mind. … Even language can be seen as a wild system”.

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

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