contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: embodied spirituality

ONCE AND FUTURE WIZARD

I first encountered Merlin when I was nine years old, through T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. It includes a wonderful account of shape-shifting and indeed of education (as imaginative, experiential, self-reliant). As time went on I didn’t exactly get Arthur, the Wart’s, education. But I got enough to feed both memory and hope as enhancements of here-and-now experience rather than distractions from it. I didn’t forget, or if so, not completely. Thanks to Elen Sentier for reminding me in her recent book, which I plan to review soon.

“The thunder-clouds which usually go with hot weather were there, high columns of cumulus with glaring edges, but there was not going to be any thunder. It was too hot even for that. ‘If only’, thought the Wart, ‘I did not have to go into a stuffy classroom, but could take off my clothes and swim in the moat’.

“They crossed the courtyard, having almost to take deep breaths before they darted across it, as if they were going quickly through an oven. The shade of the gatehouse was cool, but the barbican, with its close walls, was hottest of all. In one last dash across the desert they had reached the drawbridge – could Merlyn have guessed what he was thinking? – and were staring down into the moat.

“It was the season of water-lilies. If Sir Ector had not kept one section free of them for the boys’ bathing, all the water would have been covered. As it was, about twenty yards on each side of the bridge were cut each year, and one could dive in from the bridge itself. The moat was deep. It was used as a stew, so that the inhabitants of the castle could have fish on Fridays, and for this reason the architects had been careful not to let the drains and sewers run into it. It was stocked with fish every year.

“’I wish I was a fish’, said the Wart

“’What sort of fish?’

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“’I think I should like to be a perch,’ he said. ‘They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”

“Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, ‘snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?’

“Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown a hundred times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

“’Oh, Merlyn,’ he cried, ‘please come too.’

“’For this once,’ said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, ‘I will come but in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.’”

(1) T. H. White The sword in the stone Volume 1 of The once and future King London: Collins, 1958

(2) 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/

POEM: I CAN WADE GRIEF

 

I can wade Grief –

Whole pools of it

I’m used to that –

But the least push of Joy

Breaks up my feet

And I tip –

drunken

 

Emily Dickinson

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

POEM: THE OPENING OF EYES

 

That day I saw beneath dark clouds,

the passing light over the water

and I heard the voice of the world speak out,

I knew then, as I had before,

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read.

 

It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing,

speaking out loud in the clear air.

 

It is Moses in the desert

fallen to his knees before the lit bush.

It is the man throwing away his shoes

as if to enter heaven

and finding himself astonished,

opened at last,

fallen in love with solid ground.

 

David Whyte River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007 Langley, Washington: Rivers Press, 2007

POEM: GRAVITY’S LAW

 

How surely gravity’s law

Strong as an ocean current,

Takes hold of even the strongest thing

And pulls it toward the heart of the world.

 

Each thing – each stone, blossom, child – is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

Push out beyond what we belong to

For some empty freedom.

 

If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence

We could rise up, rooted, like trees …

This is what the things can teach us: to fall,

Patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

Before he can fly.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God New York: Riverhead, 1996 (Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

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

 

FULLNESS

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching trees, their branches now bare, against a steadily darkening sky. I forgot myself in the scene, feeling filled with it. The core experience was fullness.

I suppose that this is what I mean by the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – though this experience was of the flowing present, extended over time, noticing and enjoying change in nature. On later reflection, I was less reminded of mystics and meditators than of poets, particularly John Keats and his ‘negative capability’. He contrasted this with another type of response, which he called “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”. Negative capability is “everything and nothing – it has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet”. (1)

‘Everything and nothing’ can be experienced as empty or full. I’m increasingly finding fullness. This has the effect of holding me in nature and time, in my unique human life soon enough to be over. This is where I want to be, with the important qualification that ‘fullness’ gives me a additional sense of being resourced by a larger well-spring of life than I might otherwise recognise. Experienced fullness doesn’t come simply from trees and sky. It comes also from the receptive openness I access when my senses are attuned. I find myself feeling a stillness underneath and within all movement; hearing a silence underneath and within all sound; seeing a soft luminescence underneath and within all colour and form, and in darkness too. These are the keys to fullness – a fullness where everything stills and slows down yet doesn’t stop.

Largely this is what I now mean (for myself) by a ‘contemplative’ state. Its development reflects a magpie approach to learning and my felt sense of what is right for me. I discovered the stillness through Buddhist breath meditation (movement of the breath as the belly rises and falls; yet stillness within). But I am not a Buddhist. I learned the silence through listening to the Oran Mor (Song of the World), though I don’t currently work within Gaelic traditions. I discovered (what should I call it?) primordial luminescence within the Headless Way (2). But I’m not continuing with the Headless path, because the headless trope itself now feels tedious and I don’t entirely share the Harding world view. Fullness has a link to Sophian Gnosticism, of all these traditions the closest to my heart, under the Greek name Pleroma. But my ‘fullness’ has come out of direct experience and I’m being careful to keep it that way. I like the resonance of the English word fullness, and it helps to maintain a degree of separation from the ancient view. Yet even whilst maintaining my inner authority, I am grateful for these inputs from the world’s spiritual heritage. I remain indebted whilst crafting my own path.

I’m not Keats and, for me, negative capacity for fullness tends to come as an alloy. It is generally interspersed with a certain amount of egotistical sublime, in my case as an upgraded stream of consciousness or monkey mind narrative. In my universe, that’s fine too, and all part of the fullness. I would like more skill in switching between the two modes at will, and I believe this to be achievable. At another level, it doesn’t really matter.

(1) Keats selected poems and letters Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995 (Selected by Robert Gittings; edited by Sandra Anstey)

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

STROKE OF INSIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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