contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Earth spirituality

MODRON AND MABON: A VISION

An absence untouched by narrative. Or, perhaps, original presence as an unnameable intimacy of experiencing. Undivided, it cannot know itself as object.

As if ‘then’, there is an appearance of appearances. The knowing of a primal mist and mirk, shot through with luminous flashes. It seems to spread through a dawning space and time which are still malleable, not yet settled or regulated.

Aeons pass, and figures step out of the mist. They emerge into a pale and heart-breaking winter light, softened by gentle rain. There are evergreen leaves and tiny sparkles of light, offered as watery reflections.

The people – there are two of them – come like refugees, suitably attired for the North. One is the Mother of All, here known as Modron, the destined Kali of a cool ambiguous land. The other is Mabon, her magical child. Their purpose here is to remind people of who they really are.

The Modron will not hold her human form for long. She will dissolve into the landscape and the elements, though her energy will still move through them. The Mabon’s task, no small one, is to stand by the Mother, to enjoy her gifts, and to show the way home.

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POEM: THE SADNESS OF THE GORGES

Above the gorges, one thread of sky;

Cascades in the gorges twine a thousand cords.

High up, the slant of splintered sunlight, moonlight;

Beneath, curbs to the wild heave of the waves,

The shock of a gleam, and then another,

In depths of shadow frozen for centuries;

The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon;

Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.

Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins

And the twisted skeletons hang tilted upright;

Branches weep as the frost perches

Mournful cadences, remote and clear.

A spurned exile’s shriveled guts

Scald and seethe in the water and fire he walks through.

A lifetime’s like a fine-spun thread,

The road goes up by the rope at the edge.

When he pours his libation of tears to the ghosts in the stream

The ghosts gather, a shimmer on the waves.

Meng Chiao (751 – 814) in Poems of the Late T’ang Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965 (Translated with an Introduction by A. C. Graham)

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”.

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

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/

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY REVISITED

I experience this season as one of endings, fruitions and threads of continuity. I’m looking back at Contemplative Druidry (1), self-published on 9 October 2014, and currently with sales of just under 1200 – mostly through Kindle.

For me, the book feels true to its moment, a time when the ‘contemplative’ meme was still relatively unfamiliar in Druidry, but where we had already had two years to explore and develop it. The book drew on the experience of a local group in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England and the thoughts of the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group in its formative period. Much of it was about people and their feelings, thoughts, identifications and values in the process of development.

The book offered no teachings or collective community line about contemplative Druidry. But it did offer a picture of who was involved, where they stood and what they did. I identified a tentative consensus that Druid contemplative practice happened in three main ways: formal sitting meditations (both ‘pathworking’ and ‘mindful’); being in nature and walking the land; and the contemplative use of creative arts. Practice could be solo or in groups, and the book itself helped to develop templates for group sessions and day retreats.

To balance this anarchic approach to spiritual development, I was lucky enough to have a foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm, who leads the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), to which I belong. Instead of the expected few words, he sent me his beautiful and inspirational essay Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: The Nature Mysticism of Druidry. A treasure in itself, it has a deepening effect on the book as a whole.

Although the contemplative project, as a project, is finished, I am glad to know that the notion of a contemplative aspect in Druidry is no longer controversial. Within a few hours of launching the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group in 2012, I was challenged by two influential people in the Druid world. Now it has over 2,000 members and no-one turns a hair. The contemplative meme is there to stay, for its time, until it fades out again. The third anniversary of Contemplative Druidry finds me content.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/KDP, 2014