contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

BOOK REVIEW: GWYN AP NUDD

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

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

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

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

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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

 

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

 

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, 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 supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

NATURALISTIC ANIMISM: SEEING THE TREES FOR THE ENTS

Great contribution by John Halstead to the re-visioning of Animism.

Humanistic Paganism

The Tree or the Spirit of the Tree?

Those who believe in personal gods sometimes have difficulty understanding non-theistic nature worship. I have heard it said that we cannot possibly be worshipping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; we must be worshiping a divine force “within” or “behind” the natural phenomena, something like Greek dryads or J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Ents, the personification of the spirits of the trees.

From a theistic perspective this makes sense. After all, Orthodox Christians do not worship their icons, and Pagan polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods. So some theists have difficulty understanding the non-theistic worship of physical nature. They assume that worship requires a conscious person on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it seems absurd to worship unconscious nature.

On the other hand, many Naturalistic Pagans are uncomfortable with…

View original post 1,581 more words

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