contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spirituality

REWRITING ‘ABOUT’

This blog is now five years old. Throughout the period I have gradually revised the ABOUT section, and now I have posted a major rewrite following a re-orientation of my life and practice over the last year. The new text is below. It reflects elements of continuity as well as change, and I have not changed the title of the blog.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews.

“Five years on, my inquiry is developing something of a Buddhist emphasis, mainly through a link with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing. Originally it was an inquiry within modern Druidry, some of it solitary and some shared with others.

“My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014 with a foreword Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: The Nature mysticism of Druidry by Philip Carr-Gomm, who leads the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids of which I am a member. I continue to stand by this earlier work, itself influenced by an already existing interest in Buddhism. Druidry is still part of my life and practice.

“Other, background, influences are: an encounter with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way; a thread of Sophian Gnosticism interweaving my Druidry; a concern with the developmental possibilities in ageing, which found a voice in a doctoral project Social spaces for mature imaginations: reflections on a participative inquiry (University of the West of England); a Jungian based training and practice in counselling at the London Transpersonal Centre; the practice and teaching Co-Counselling International (a peer and reciprocal support system); and my original education in English Literature (University of Cambridge). Forthcoming posts will continue to reflect this background and range of interests.”

EDITED MONDAY 24 JULY 2017

 

MARY MAGDALENE

 

Tomorrow, 22 July, is dedicated to Mary Magdalene. The passage below is from The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (1), one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels driven underground in the later 4th century C.E. due to Orthodox repression. These words show the importance of Mary Magdalene as a teacher to many people in the early Christian movement and beyond, and as the Christ Sophia to some (2).

“Peter said to Mary:

‘Sister, we know that the Teacher loved you

Differently from other women.

Tell us whatever you remember

Of any words he told you

Which we have not yet heard’.

Mary said to them:

‘I will now speak to you

Of that which has not been given to you to hear.

I had a vision of the Teacher,

And I said to him:

Lord I see you now

In this vision.

And he answered:

You are blessed, for the sight of me does not disturb you.

There where is the nous* lies the treasure.”

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Mary Magdalene Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2002 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

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

Nous* Mary’s vision is a vision of the nous. Leloup’s commentary suggests that ancient Christian Gnostics understood nous as the “finest point of the soul”, an intermediate realm between the purely sensory and the purely spiritual, giving access to a vein of prophetic or visionary sacred knowledge.

 

‘RESTING IN GOD’

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) explores a Christian term in his The Art of Living (1). He says: “In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the ultimate; we rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not believe in. God, Nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

I tend not to use theistic language myself. But I do recognize and understand it, and I also see its value in building bridges between traditions. Thay has an interest in Buddhist Christian dialogue that goes back to the time of his friendship with Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960’s, after Thay was forced to leave his native Vietnam. He has subsequently written Living Buddha, Living Christ (2).

We can find these bridgebuilding efforts echoed on the Christian side – for example by Father Jean-Yves Leloup, an Orthodox priest, and student of Christian Gnostic gospels, including that of St. Thomas (3). He has also engaged in Christian-Buddhist dialogue with the Dalai Lama (4). We find here a note that has parallels, without being identical, to that of Thich Nhat Hanh.

“His disciples said to him:

When will the dead be at rest?

When will the new world come?

He answered them: what you are waiting for has already come,

But you do not see it.” Logion 51, Gospel of St. Thomas.

“What we have been waiting for, the peace and fullness we yearn for, is already here. … Eternal life is in the very heart of this life. It is the uncreated dimension of our present life, which cannot die. To look for it elsewhere is to depart from it.” Later (Logion 61) Yeshua (Jesus) is translated as saying, ‘I come from the One who is Openness’, and Leloup comments: “Rilke once said Openness is the least blasphemous name for God. It is the name that is least defining and qualifying. Openness is the infinite space within the very heart of space, containing all and contained by nothing.” In Openness, “the body is open to the energies of the cosmos, the heart is open to a deep compassion, and the mind is as clear as a mirror, serenely reflecting the multitude of appearances.”

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The art of living London: Rider, 2017

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ London: Rider, 2012 (Foreword by David Steindl-Rast; introduction by Elaine Pagels)

(3) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Thomas: the gnostic wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

(4) Jean-Yves Leloup Compassion and meditation: the spiritual dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2009 (Translated by Joseph Rowe. Dedications to Father Seraphim at Mount Athos and to the Dalai Lama, Ocean of Comapssion)

BOOK REVIEW: MERLIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIMLESSNESS

We often talk about our ‘path’ or ‘journey’, and this can have a value. Yet at heart spirituality is about being somewhere rather than getting somewhere – recognising the home we have never left.

“The concentration on Aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for, and that you already are everything you want to become.

“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available to us right here in the present moment.

“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and yet lose ourselves along the way. We may even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.

“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or if you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for?   What am I searching for? … What am I waiting for?”

Thich Nhat Hanh The art of living London: Rider, 2017

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: THE JOURNEY

This poem by Mary Oliver is included in the material for my Mindful Self-Compassion course. I wonder how many readers feel some resonance with it.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations……

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

REDEMPTION SONG

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

“Emancipate yourselves

from mental slavery.

None but ourselves can

free ours minds.”

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

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

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

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

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