contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: embodied spirituality

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

 

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MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

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

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

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

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

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

SPIDER

I’ve been busy with spiders over the last few weeks, noticing their variety both indoors and out. There’s one outside my window as I write. Some of this attention has involved removing spiders from the house. As I become more sensitized to their sentience, I’ve grown somewhat ambivalent about this. Yet from a wider household perspective, it does need to be done. The extract below is from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and looks at the life of a spider.

“Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly ‘programmed in its genes.’ Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parent and predecessors. Whatever ‘instructions’, however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself in any given moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distances between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening.

“The genome could not have explicitly commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited ‘programs’, patterns or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate its genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’”.

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

This book has been an inspiration to many people over the last 20 years, including both naturalist and animist Pagans. The extract comes from a section entitled The Mindful Life of the Body.

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

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)