contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Earth spirituality

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

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BOOK REVIEW: MERLIN

Elen Sentier’s Merlin Once & Future Wizard is a marvel, highly recommended. The author effortlessly charms us into a fresh and extended understanding of Merlin, introducing us to a “huge, ancient, wise and powerful” being –  teacher, trickster and friend. For me, her introductory Who Is Merlin? chapter offers the best description of the essential Merlin I have ever read.

“Merlin is a liminal being. Liminal means a threshold, a place between past and future, between here and there, between one world and another … and he is always standing at that threshold. He is that place. And that ever-changing constant threshold is now, the here-and-now, and it’s constantly in motion like the sea”. Merlin teaches us, if we are willing, to “be continuously and consciously aware that you stand in the middle of change all the time, whatever is going on”. This is a lifelong learning. It cannot be hurried, and it cannot be branded or packaged.

Happily, however, it can be pointed towards, “if you can find someone who knows Merlin intimately and is willing to walk beside you on your journey to know him – and there are quite a few of us about if you look … You don’t feel alone, and they help you stop that nasty subliminal feeling that you really are nuts.”

Elen Sentier walks beside us to great effect. She has known Merlin since early childhood, when she joined the company of walkers-between-the-worlds, which means having a foot in the everyday world at the same time as having the other foot in the otherworld. She describes herself both as “an ordinary elderly woman” and an “awenydd”, or spirit-keeper in the old Brythonic tongue.

For readers who are new to Merlin, the book takes care to cover Merlin in history, stories and poetry – and even adds (for me at least) new material from the Welsh Marches in the chapter Pig Moor: Dyfrig, Ergyng and Mynydd Myrddin. But the greatest strength of Merlin Once & Future Wizard is the personal sharing interwoven with this traditional lore, showing how the author’s own relationship with Merlin has unfolded. At heart this book is a personal testament to a life lived under Merlin’s influence and inspiration. The effect is to give it added weight and authenticity, supported rather than undermined by an informal and chatty style.

Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard: Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

REDEMPTION SONG

In December 2010, Swithin Fry interviewed me for Stroud FM Radio. The focus was my spiritual path, combining Druid and Buddhist aspects. A shortened version is available at the OBOD website (1). The format was a bit like Desert Island Discs, and interspersed with music. The first piece I chose was Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, and I drew attention to the lines:

“Emancipate yourselves

from mental slavery.

None but ourselves can

free ours minds.”

Astonished that nearly seven years seem to have passed, I listened to my CD of the broadcast again today. What I noticed was a lot of continuity yet some difference of emphasis. At that time, the Buddhist influence – though strongly affirmed – was a bit sketchy. It was clear to me that Buddhist contemplative methods were a means of freeing the mind and seeing reality more clearly, but I talked much more about Earth spirituality and about Bardistry. These too have power to free the mind.

I see Marley as a major Bard of his generation, with a resonance beyond Rastafarianism and the slave-descended African diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. What makes him a Bard for me is his ability to speak for more than himself, and to provide a voice for the voiceless. Or even not exactly voiceless, but for people needing to have their experience reflected for them in a more telling, more powerful way, articulated somehow more fully. If strong enough, the song can potentially resonate for everyone, including those outside the specific cultural experience and heritage being referenced.

This isn’t quite the conventional definition of Bardistry. But it does have the sense of a public and performance oriented art that can influence people’s view of themselves and their world in emancipatory and expansive directions. It contradicts shutting down, isolation and contraction. I could call it a Bardistry for postmodern times, when issues of social and cultural identity are complex and stressed. It’s not about pleasing Chiefs any more, and hasn’t been for quite a while.

This is a thread I haven’t much engaged with since I started to specialize in the contemplative aspects of the path. However, the issues aren’t separate: freeing ourselves from mental slavery is for me the theme that binds them. I am now more fully engaged with specifically Buddhist practices than for a long time. But listening to this broadcast again, I still identify myself as a Dharma Druid rather than Buddhist tout court.

EMBRACING INTERBEING

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the trees to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can see that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter‘ with the verb ‘to be’, we have a new verb ‘inter-be’” (1).

Thich Nath Hanh extends his proposition to include sunshine, the logger, the saw mill, the bread sustaining the logger (thus also wheat) and the logger’s parents. We are there too, because the paper is part of our perception. In fact, “you cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. … As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

I have embraced ‘interbeing’. It is the most accessible and elegant way I know of talking about non-duality: clear, workable and sensitized to an ethics of empathy. It leans into the affirmation of embodiment, of loving relationship with the Earth, and a willingness to be socially engaged. I prefer this account to ones that tend in the direction of ‘I am the One’ or union with the Divine. We each seek the language with the most resonance and integrity for ourselves, whilst also knowing that any language is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

For some time, I have been working towards a view like interbeing through my personal contemplative inquiry. My chapter in the compilation Pagan Planet is called Living presence in a field of living presence: practising contemplative Druidry (2). There I raise questions about paths that lack a felt sense of embodiment, inter-connectedness and inter-dependence even when they do valuably encourage agency, personal responsibility, self-cultivation and independence of mind.  I specifically note two apparently contrasting effects of meditation, beyond its being a “green anti-depressant”. The first is that it “makes me very aware of my fragility … and complete embeddedness in a web of interdependence, and the narrow limits of my usual consciousness and perception”. The second is to find myself almost melting “with love and gratitude for the miracle of being alive at all”, moved too “by the world’s seeming ability to be irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful (3)”.

I now have an outer court membership of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing and have recently begun attending a weekly meditation session with the local sangha. It seems like a good place to be. It continues, in a new setting, an aspect of what I have already been doing in my contemplative inquiry.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2009 (20th anniversary ed. Editor Peter Levitt)

(2) James Nichol Living presence in a field of living presence: practicing contemplative Druidry in Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, believing and belonging in the 21st century Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: Moon Books, 2016

(3) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

HERE-AND-NOW STONE

I am carefully sitting in a balance of warmth and shade. In the palm of my right hand is a small sandy brown stone. My four fingers are gently folded over it, the thumb resting beside them, unobtrusively pointing out. The stone is a good fit and the texture relatively smooth, with just enough variation to offer tactile interest. This is a pleasing stone to hold, as it exchanges warmth with my friendly hand. I feel in relationship with this stone, most likely collected from a beach though I don’t know when and where.

I am doing this as part of a formal exercise – you might think, a Druid one. I can recall ones very like it. But in this case, it is linked to a Mindful Self Compassion programme, research based but with an explicitly Buddhist inspiration. I’m asked to enjoy the stone. After some time I open my hand and gaze at the subtle variations in colour, and a dusting of tiny white crystalline spots. I pick the stone up and rub it against my skin. There’s just enough roughness in the contact to generate a real aliveness.  The taste is slightly salty. I am thoroughly engaged with the stone.

The framers of the exercise link this combination of focus and appreciation with coming home to the present moment, a place with no room for regret or worry, past or future. Their recommendation, going forward, is to keep the stone in my pocket, or somewhere handy. Then, whenever I feel swept up in hurt feelings or distracted ones, I can take myself back home by rubbing the stone with my fingers. I am sure that this is true and I will begin using it this way. Overnight, it can be the first stone on my Guanyin altar.

I also believe that my Druid background adds value. If I treat this action purely as a psychological exercise, it might come to seem a little calculated and Pavlovian. In my universe, I am entering a relationship with an entity from the mineral kingdom, receiving a gift, and hopefully offering one too. I believe that this understanding will add power, beauty and magic to an apparently simple activity.

MINDFULNESS MUST BE ENGAGED

Social action: what to do and how to do it. An issue for any spiritual community ….

“When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both – to go out to help people, and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

“We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, then many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?”

Thich Nhat Hanh Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in daily life London: Rider, 1995

BOOK REVIEW: THE CRANE BAG

The Craane BagThe Crane Bag, Joanna van der Hoeven’s forthcoming book*, offers an introduction to the ritual tools and practices found in the Druid tradition. It achieves this briefly, simply and with a light touch – as books in the Pagan Portals series are designed to do. Yet it much more than a tick box guide. It provides context and meaning, showing the modern evolution of the Druid tradition itself.

The author makes it clear that she wants readers “to develop their own path in their own time in their own fashion”. Re-enchantment is both path and goal. With proper use, the crane bag “can further the Druid in working with the tides of nature, finding his or her own place in the environment, living in balance, harmony and peace”. The movement overall is “toward reintegration with the natural world”.

At its simplest, the crane bag is the container for Druid ritual tools and as such enables the practices. Bag and tools provide the practitioner with “something tangible to express the spiritual”, acting as a portable “map of the soul”. Behind the crane bag lies an ancient Irish story beginning with the contention between two sisters and the transformation of one of them, Aoife, into a crane. The story is beautifully told and its relevance clearly explained in the first chapter of the book.

In ritual, a period of time and an area of space are set apart and dedicated. This is not to create a lasting duality of sacred and mundane, but a step on the way to experiencing everything as sacred. “Ritual helps us to step back from the busyness, into another way of being. It is a change of consciousness, where we can shift our perception away from a singular view to a more plural view, realising that we are part of an ecosystem”. There is a clear preference for working outdoors, where awareness can shift more readily, though this is not insisted on.

A Druid’s tools will vary with the Druid. The book identifies the following: a silver branch; a staff; cups/bowls/cauldrons; drums; a sickle or knife; robes; altars; fire/candles; incense. People may make or buy them. Ethical sourcing of tools and materials is discussed in some detail, in line with the values of The Crane Bag overall.

What goes into a ritual is explored under the headings of call for peace; preparing the nemeton; honouring spirits of place, three worlds, four directions, ancestors, deities; ritual action; prayers and magic; offerings; eisteddfod; sacrifice; feast; closing. There’s encouragement to practitioners to craft what is right for them from within this set of suggestions and beyond it. The author adds, “I have been in circles with Christian Druids and Buddhist monks, as well as other religions from all over the world”. What matters in ritual is being present and performing the ritual with mindfulness, so that “any words that you speak, any gesture or movement you make will flow more easily, be more graceful and filled with meaning”.

There’s a final chapter on ‘altered states’. I don’t use the term myself, because it makes an ‘altered’ vs ‘normal’ distinction that doesn’t really work for me in my own life. But I recognise it as a term that is widely and usefully employed. Here, it facilitates valuable discussions of meditation, drumming, chanting and song, sensory deprivation, sacred landscape and sitting out. Three kinds of meditation are distinguished: calming the mind and re-tuning the body, journeying and problem solving. Guidance is offered on each kind. Different suggestions are also explored within the other topics. For sensory deprivation, there are two. One is the Celtic version of the sweat lodge, called teach an alais. The other is total immersion in darkness for a considerable period before being brought out into the light. The author refers to early medieval accounts of this, where it was done in aid of Bardic inspiration and prophesy: imbhas forosna.

I found The Crane Bag a very useful contribution to its topic and highly recommend it.

 

Joanna van der Hoeven The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2017

*According to the publisher, the book is due for release on 28 July, and can be pre-ordered through Amazon US & UK, Indiebound and Hive.

ANOTHER SHORE?

 

My sacred space at home has undergone a complete makeover. I am effectively in a different place. It happened this way. On 7 May, I ordered a statue of Guanyin, partly as a birthday present to myself and partly with reference to ‘the true thought of the heart’. Perhaps the true thought of the heart is the real gift. In a blog post I wrote on that day (1), I described Guanyin as sitting on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. I said: “it is the note that I am looking for”.

When the statue arrived from China, it was much bigger than I expected. It was over two metres high and quite broad, because Guanyin is sitting on a crescent moon, which takes up space. Caught up in the elegance of the design, I had completely misread the dimensions. No room in my room for the true thought of the heart?

Making room involved a complete clearing and cleaning of the place, and a considerable re-arranging of furniture. During an afternoon, I reshaped the space entirely with Guanyin as the predominant focus. Other imagery is still there. The Western Way is still well represented. A Green Man represents our oneness with the Earth, and our apparent separation from it and need for healing stories. A somewhat Marian (both of them) Sophia is there, imaging sacred fertility, sacramental relationship and the challenge to awaken. So are other familiar objects – a dragon sitting on an egg, an abstract and geometrical mandala picture, a tiny wooden Buddha, (not new) contained and serene. (A hopefully only slightly larger and more expansive laughing one is on his way.) Around the walls I find a C17th map of Somerset, my native county; pictures of Glastonbury Tor and the Eildon Hills; a small painting of a crane; and a painting I commissioned in the early 1990s of the Pictish Dancing Sea Horses from the Aberlemno Stone in Angus.

Yet the defining presence is now Guanyin. It happened as if by itself. The rest of the room is familiar and understood. She by contrast is numinous, dynamic and unknown, as well as large. The relationship is not yet established. Close-up, she is indeed playful and androgynous, but she is much more than that. As Guanyin, s/he hears the cries of the world. In her male aspect, s/he is Avolokitesvara, who shared the wisdom gained from deep practice in The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. S/he opens the way to the whole tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and its Vajrayana or Tantric variants. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the seeming riddle of this path. “The Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact no living beings are being helped to the other shore’ (2). Inevitably, it seems, I am drawn by this proposition. Necessarily, it seems, I am gathering Buddhist resources and accessing Buddhist networks, now attracted to the path as well as the Bodhisattva. I did not anticipate this.

This transcends contemplative inquiry, whilst emphatically including it. The Guanyin Oracle (3) tells me that I am under a God’s protection, and gives me a verse called After the Rain.

“After a long rain, we joyously watch the heavens clear.

The sun and moon grow slowly brighter.

The gloomy days are over, so be happy and joyous.

You will bound through the Dragon Door in one leap.

I am reminded of Penny Billington’s use of the term ‘egrigore’ in Contemplative Druidry (4). In Chapter 4 Druid Identity and Values, she says that spiritual movements have an egrigore, “an inner reality made up not only of the ideas of the members, but also the invisible influences from the other realms that resonate with that ‘flavour’ of spiritual thought; and as Druids we are dedicated to making connections not only in the natural world but on the other planes as well, other states of consciousness.” I certainly find that images and their associations can have a tremendous power if I am open to them, and for me, now, the Guanyin image is one of those. It is focusing my energy and attention, and making a Buddhist inspired matrix of references, aspirations, values, traditions and practices vividly present to me. This kind of process works much faster than ordinary thinking. Assembling a new Chinese statue out of three separate parts, cleansing and reordering a room, took me into a new space, and here I still am.

  • https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/
  • Thich Nhat Hanh The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation London: Rider, 1991
  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the voice of the Goddess of compassion London: Piatkus, 2009
  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

REBLOG: SCIENCE IN SERVICE TO MOTHER EARTH

Science is, after all, an endeavor of humans and our machines. What would it mean to put this endeavor at the service of Mother Earth? Presumably, our efforts must always be guided by human discernment, in all its fallibility. Who decides what best serves this vision of the Greater Good?

via [A Pedagogy of Gaia] Science in Service to Mother Earth, by Bart Everson — Humanistic Paganism