contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spirituality

PSYCHIC GARDEN: BLACKBIRDS

My wife Elaine and I have a blackbird pair, now with two fledglings, almost at our back door. They have created a precarious nest in a jasmine bush just outside. We have halted all clipping for the time being. Blackbirds have also appeared in Sophia’s garden, my Innerworld sanctuary and space for insight and healing.

The garden, which shifts over time, is now a place of midsummer twilight. It has a fountain at its centre. Water jets high into the air before cascading through a succession of bowls into a wide and shallow pool at the bottom. In the twilight, I find it hard to see clearly, though easy enough to hear. The perpetual movement of water makes its music. Otherwise, the garden is at first quiet.

I hear the blackbirds, two of them, without seeing them. This follows a visit in August last year, when there was only one. At that time, I wrote a post about blackbirds as birds of Rhiannon and other aspects of their place in Welsh mythology and modern Druidry: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/a-bird-of-rhiannon/

Shortly after writing the post, I discovered that Jean Markale, the sage of Broceliande, links the blackbird with Merlin, since merle is the French for blackbird and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spoken language was French. (It was he who introduced the world to the name Merlin.) Without wanting to debate this derivation, I enjoy the sense of this common, plebeian bird, having such resonance and capacity. It contrasts with the image of the noble, highly trained predator – the merlin hawk – which I grew up with.

Somehow, through this discovery, I feel confirmed and affirmed as a civilian, rather than saint or sage, monk or magician. Those paths are fine, but not my own. Blackbirds are anchored in ordinary life. Yet they do sing at twilight, in ways that move and inspire us.

I take my seat, on the bench that’s offered, recognizing my entry into the fourth quarter of my life, with this lesson in mind.

(1) Jean Markale Merlin: Priest of Nature Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions (Kindle edition) Translated by Belle N. Burke

 

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EMBODIMENT AND AT-HOMENESS

In a previous post, (1) I told the story of Jill Bolte Taylor’s severe brain haemorrhage. For her, the experience contained a hidden blessing. As her ability to think disintegrated, Jill Bolte Taylor “felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria … 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 … a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Jill Bolte Taylor subsequently made a complete recovery from her stroke. Indeed, she was able to integrate the positive aspects of the stroke experience, leading to a fuller and richer life than she had had before.

In a gentler way, the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’ are seeking a similar result. “The beginning of bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way through to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing.” (2) In ‘Focusing’, bio-spirituality’s recommended working method, practitioners address what they see as three critical issues in spirituality. The first is the “perennial problem of getting out of the mind”. The second is “the challenge of being drawn into an awareness of some Larger Process”. The third is the way in which “body knowing” helps with the first two. I have started using this approach as an active solo meditation, and so far I find the results promising. The core of this practice, when a solo meditation, is to hold an aware, enabling and loving attention to the body its processes, so that the felt sense of At-Homeness  has a chance to ripen.

For me, At-Homeness has become another way of describing non-duality as an experience. At-Homeness asks for a deepened embodiment, though for me ’embodiment’ is a more expansive term than is conventionally accepted. I work with a sense of three layers of embodiment, which I call physical, subtle and cosmic. The physical body is confined to the envelope of skin, whilst the subtle body extends further and is porous. The cosmic body is an emptiness body without boundaries. I believe that all are involved in body knowing and At-Homeness, and they are not ultimately separate. Reginald Ray has a good account (3) of how this works in his teaching and practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. In this, extended view of embodiment, I reach out beyond, and then further beyond, the strictly personal into a not-I-not-other-than-I territory. Yet I continue to stand on the Earth, a distinct sentient being interconnected with other sentient beings and the sentience of the world itself.  It is all my Home, and all needed for a full sense of At-Homeness.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/ 

(2) Peter Campbell & Edwin McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way To Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) Reginald A. Ray Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009

STORY: ANGEL OF THE INTERVIEW

On a cold morning at the end of winter, Peggy feels alone. She finds no peace in the stillness, no comfort in the returning light. A young researcher wants her to talk about the old days. She has allowed this; she resents it; she is afraid.

Peggy turns to her mirror. Wild white hair – that’s OK, ‘older and wilder’ is fashionable now. But she can’t like the pallid face, the anxious grey-green eyes, and the haunted expression that isn’t down to age. She sees herself as somehow lost, diminished. It’s already what she feels. She steels herself for the encounter to come.

When the doorbell buzzes, Peggy reluctantly stands. She is still tall at 60, though a little bowed and stooping, a little hesitant in her stance. She has a momentary flashback, with its brief sharp pain, to a time of charismatic presence and carefully casual elegance. Well, an old knitted jumper and faded jeans will have to do now. She takes a deep breath, goes to her front door, and opens it.

‘Hi’, says Peggy’s guest. ‘Peggy Plowright?’ Her speech is clear and her gaze almost piercing. Peggy hesitantly responds: ‘Yes …. I’ve … been expecting you. Please come in’. The researcher introduces herself as Sahana Patel. Peggy hears confidence in the young voice.

Soon they are both seated by an open fire with tea and cake. Sahana surveys the room, head turning in swift movements, black pony tail flying. She reminds Peggy of a beautiful bird of prey, as she begins the process.

‘So, you’ve agreed to an interview?’

‘Um … Yes. … Yes, I have. But I don’t want to be recorded, not electronically. Those things make me nervous.’

‘That’s fine’, says Sahana, wielding a glossy red notebook. ‘No voice recorder. Just a few notes. You can look at them before I leave’. She is so poised, so professional.

Peggy takes a deep breath. She is caught between the cold now of 2018, and the radiant summer of 2003. That elegant house in Bristol, home to the Fellowship of the Pearl, the setting for her life’s work, or so she had thought. Until … well, until …

Sahana moves to her first, and very open, question. Kind or cunning?

‘Where should we start, do you think?’

‘Well, you’re here because of an interest in spiritual movements. And you know how Malcolm and I … ‘

‘Your late husband?’

‘Yes. You know how we started the Fellowship of the Pearl in 1994, in Bristol. There was a slowly gathering interest in the Gnostic Gospels after their publication in 1978. People found their way to us. We held meetings and study sessions to start with. Then, because of the demand, we moved on to one-to-one instruction. Eventually other members came to live in the house. There was plenty of room, after all. We weren’t priests, didn’t found a church – this was about individual seekers finding companionship along the way …’

‘But it was the Celestina teachings that made the difference … ‘

‘Yes. “Celestina” gave me my access to Spirit. Christian Gnostics believe in continuous revelation. I don’t think of Celestina as another being. It’s more as if by taking on the identity of Celestina I was able to anchor my connection with the Divine, the kind of connection Mary Magdalene models in the Gospel bearing her name. “There where is the nous lies the treasure”. Somehow, I could mediate an aspect of Divine wisdom … as Celestina, it’s as if, you know, um… I spoke with a different kind of authority. … It seems so long ago now. … Another world. … People responded, they came to us in larger numbers. Now I sometimes wonder how much it really … um … and yet, and yet … it’s so long ago. There’s nothing left now ….’

‘Can you tell me what happened?’

‘As interest grew, I … Celestina … became more of a performer. You know. For bigger and perhaps naiver audiences. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was published in April 2003. The lure of secret knowledge, that kind of thing. We attracted a different type of …. follower. Malcolm’s word, not mine, not mine. He loved the new energy. He started to have plans for expansion, a bigger organization. I was concerned about all this, where it was going. And one day that precious internal space, the Celestina space, became dark and silent. The joy of illumination quite gone. I was distraught, frankly terrified. I prayed, read, reflected, I insisted on time out …

‘… And I thought, dark night of the soul, this could be a gift …. if I share honestly, just as myself, there could be a deepening in the Fellowship, a greater maturity if you like …. But Malcolm said that we’d lose members, the new direction would make it … unattractive. And I was clear that, yes, we might, you know … accept losing a number people, if … if that was the price of integrity. … And, well … um … our own relationship, Malcolm and me, the relationship on which the Fellowship was founded, became edgy, more distant, almost hostile. And then that day came, the day that changed everything …’

‘The day of your husband’s accident?

‘Yes.’

‘He went down a long flight of stairs didn’t he’.

‘Yes.’

‘Are you willing to talk about it?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know. It was the end of the Fellowship, of course. I can talk about that, and what two or three of the members did to pick up the pieces afterwards. I dare say you’ll be talking to them yourself. But my husband’s death? … I’m haunted by it. You see, Sahana, I think I could have saved him. I was there. I might have held him back. He was heavy … he was yielding to the momentum of his fall … I would have been putting myself at risk, it is true … I might have gone with him. But in an earlier day I wouldn’t have hesitated … and that’s what I did. I hesitated. One moment, Sahana. It probably killed him and certainly broke me. And here I am, frozen through all these years, not able to find my way home … ’

‘But what about your faith, or path, or community? Isn’t this a part of what they’re for?’

‘Easier said, Sahana. Easier said … ‘.

‘We’re beyond the interview now, Peggy. I’ve got what I want there. I’ve talked to people from your old inner circle – Alec, Peggy. When I came here today I’d already got a sense of the Fellowship of the Pearl and its history. You’ve now told me about the later period, how it was for you, and confirmed that you couldn’t carry on in any way after Malcolm died. That’s quite enough for my day job. But since you’ve … said what you said … been so open, um,  about what happened – I do hope … that you find somewhere, you know, appropriate, to take this burden, and not just let it paralyse you. Do you want to stay frozen, homeless, as you yourself say? After all these years, are you happy without a voice? … I hope you don’t mind me …

‘No. not at all.’

Sahana and Peggy part carefully, in an atmosphere of unspoken goodwill. Peggy finds herself in a strange place, both relieved and moved. Alone again, she stands in the kitchen as a kettle boils. She senses divergent possibilities, as if for the first time.

The story above is a new departure for me – an experiment in extending my repertoire to include short stories in this blog. This story is an update of an original written for a creative writing course.

NEW DIRECTIONS: FOCUSING

I am working through a spiritual shift strong enough to need a new language and practice. I am moving towards a spirituality without religion, which is simpler and more deeply rooted in experience. I have recently connected with the Focusing movement (1,2,3), as a potential source of support.

A Focusing text (4) speaks of “the process of listening to your body in a gentle, accepting way and hearing the messages that your inner self is sending you. It’s a process of honouring the wisdom that you have inside you, becoming aware of the subtle level of knowing that speaks to you through your body”. The term ‘bio-spirituality’ was coined for it by two Catholic priests who took up this practice. They called it a “sacred inward journey”, wrote a book about it (5) and developed their own network (6).

I do not see Focusing as a spiritual path in itself, but as a means of integrating what we conventionally call mind, body and spirit. The process can be run either solo or with a partner. I am already beginning to find it useful in a meditative state where I sit with loving attention and curiosity. Using this approach, I can establish a relationship with my ‘felt sense’, however it manifests, rather than just noticing it. I can work with the strains and tensions, issues and concerns, or the neglected joys in my life. I can extend this exploration in my journal writing after sessions. I have now had a session with a teacher and completed a week of daily meditations. They are already having a catalytic effect.

From the standpoint of continuity, this is an affirmation of embodied spirituality. It enables me to access ‘Wisdom’ as a living process with change-making power. The Sophia (Wisdom) of Gnostic tradition is often seen as a celestial and indeed super-celestial figure: yet she also embodies the re-visioned Earth – ‘the Kingdom’. To inhabit this space I need the vulnerability of openness. Such work reconnects me, with a new understanding, to an earlier time in my life and my involvement in co-counselling and psychotherapy.

For me thus far, focusing practice finds the seeds of action in contemplation itself. In stillness and silence I engage creatively with my life and world. Everything is held in the loving presence of a contemplative core. My inquiry moves forward in a new way.

I am taking a break from this blog for at least the rest of this month. On my return, I will explore this and other new directions more fully.

(1) focusing.org/

(2)  focusing.org.uk/

(3) https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

(4) Ann Weiser Cornell The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide To Emotional Self-Healing Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1996

(5) Peter A. Campbell and Edwin M. McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing As A Way To Grow Chicago, Il: Loyola Press, 1985

(6) https://www.biospiritual.org/

 

NONDOING

“Doing nothing is not a universal suggestion; it is specific to the time when a story is ending, and we enter the space between stories. I am drawing here from the Taoist principle of wu-wei. Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing’, a better translation might be ‘noncontrivance’ or ‘nonforcing’. It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.

“In this I draw inspiration from a beautiful verse from the Tao Te Ching. This verse is extremely dense, with multiple meanings and layers of meaning, and I haven’t found a translation that highlights what I’m drawing from it here. Therefore, the following is my own translation. It is the last half of verse 16 – if you compare translations you will be astonished at how much they differ.

“’All things return to their root.

Returning to the root, there is stillness.

In stillness, true purpose returns.

This is what is real.

Knowing the real, there is clarity.

Not knowing the real, foolish action brings disaster.

From knowing the real comes spaciousness,

From spaciousness comes impartiality,

From impartiality comes sovereignty,

From sovereignty comes what is natural.

What comes naturally, is the Tao.

From the Tao comes what is lasting,

Persisting beyond one’s self’”.

Charles Eisenstein The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2013

THE NOTION OF INTERBEING

“I am made of earth, water, air and fire. The water I drink was once a cloud. The food I eat was once the sunshine, the rain and the earth. I am the cloud, the river and the air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I was also a cloud, a river and the air. I was a rock; I was the minerals in the water. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation; this is the history of life on Earth. We have been gas, sunshine, water, fungi and plants. We were single-celled beings. The Buddha said that in one of his former lives, he was a tree, he was a fish, he was a deer. This is not superstition. Every one of us has been a cloud, a deer, a bird, a fish and we continue to be these things today.

“The notion of interbeing, though it is a notion, helps to lead you to the ultimate truth… Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; you can only inter-be. Interbeing can connect the conventional truth to the ultimate truth, so it can lead you gradually to emptiness…. On this level, there is no beginning and no end, no birth and no death.

“When we speak of the ultimate truth, we use words like ‘emptiness’, and emptiness, when used like this, has no opposite. At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

POEM: FIELD AND SKY

At the sallow’s* gap

we step through the hedge

and are nothing but field and sky.

Hares race, lurching

to a tussle,

their frenzy printed in the soil.

The kestrel soars –

pausing, head down,

to sew with the finest needle.  (1)

I like this poem for two reasons. The first is as a beautifully written nature poem. The second is the experience it triggered for me in the second and third lines:

we step through the hedge

and are nothing but field and sky.

It is as if the hedge is a portal, and stepping through it takes us into another world, changing us into field and sky. Yet it is the same world, experienced differently. In this version we contain the natural world, holding the lives of hare and kestrel.

Contemplative moments like this – whether directly in nature or evoked in poetry – can take me out of my  boundaried sense of self and place me more fully in the flow of experience and relationship. In their afterglow, I feel a certain poignancy at the fragile, ephemeral, not-to-be-taken-for-granted quality of such connections.

*salix caprea, also called pussy willow

(1) Colin Oliver High River Sudbury: Downstream Press, 2006 (Available from poetry section of the shop at http://www.headless.org/ )

 

WHAT IF …?

In my first post of 2018, I said, ‘I have woken from my hibernation but am not yet out of my cave’ (1). Getting out of the cave has been a slow and tentative process this year. We have reached Beltane, and I can at last say that I have done it. Gratitude to the Merry Month!

In the same post I also sensed that I had ‘reached peak inquiry’. It looked that way at the time. But now I find myself unsatisfied with the place that I have reached. I have a vision of an abundance in simplicity, reached through a closer focus on direct experience, and better ways of writing about it. I ask myself: what will happen if I identify myself as a ‘secular contemplative’, centring myself within a space of ‘bio-spirituality’?

Following on from this, I ask, ‘how much continuity will I find, and how much change? What new possibilities will open? Will a stance of ‘spirituality without religion’ support the simplicity and closeness to experience that I aim for?

There are certainly points of continuity. The Contemplative Druid Group* (disbanded early in 2017) used simple, flexible methods. These were meditative, without featuring long meditations, and modelled a minimalist approach to ritual. The project saw itself as an innovation within modern Druidry and did not claim the mantle of Celtic language speakers in ancient or medieval times. Above all, it was nature-oriented, an Earth spirituality, and followed the wheel of the year as it happened – in and out of festival times.

This blog was linked to that culture, whilst always reaching out to other traditions as well. It has been an exploration of contemplative spiritualities, where ‘contemplative’ points to practices that train attentiveness, open spaces for wonder, and provide opportunities to reflect. When I looked at posts which people were reading, I identified a universalist rather than tribal approach, and ‘a readership more inspired by poetry and parables rather than sermons and sutras. Poetry tends to be suggestive rather than dogmatic and speaks directly to the heart’.

Going forward, I will continue to give Druidry and other traditions space in this blog, drawing on their creativity, healing power and wisdom. I have thoughts about new kinds of material to include as well. I’ll be looking at the same view from a different seat and using a slightly different language to describe what I see. That is my direction for contemplative inquiry now.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/contemplativeinquiry-setting-a-direction/

*The story of the development of Contemplative Druidry, its views and practice, is told in my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, published in October 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

URSULA LE GUIN: HYMN TO TIME

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Quoted by Maria Popova in https://www.brainpickings.org/newsletter/

RUPERT SPIRA: SILENCE, KNOWING, BREATH

Below is the opening section of a Direct Path meditation offered by Rupert Spira. I do not add any comments of my own, but I include a link to Rupert Spira’s website for anyone interested in looking further.

“Allow the silence to come to your attention. Although the silence is empty, see that it is appearing in Awareness, appearing in pure knowing. It is saturated with knowing.

“Feel that the silence is pervaded by and saturated with pure knowing, and that pure knowing is pervaded with silence. The silence is only the knowing of it. There is no silence apart from knowing. This knowing is silent, empty, transparent.

“Everything that appears is like a ripple in this knowing silence, or silent knowing.

“Allow the breath to come to your attention. Feel that the breath is like an undulation of this silence. Lengthen and deepen the breath as if you were an infant breathing in deep sleep. Feel that the breath is like an undulation of this ocean of silence.

“Abandon the belief and feeling that the breath takes place inside a solid, dense, located body. There is no such experience of a body. There is a vast, borderless ocean of silence pervaded by knowing, and the breath completely fills this empty, silent, knowing space.

“The sensation that thought used to label ‘my body’ is a ripple quivering in the midst of this ocean of breath. The breath is expanded into this empty, silent, knowing, completely pervaded by it. The sensation called ‘my body’ is a quivering ripple vibrating at the centre of this borderless, empty space.

“Feel that the breath is not taking place inside a container. The breath is like a mist, completely filling the space in which it appears. It doesn’t appear in a physical space; it appears in an empty, knowing silence.

“Visualize a landscape in which the space, the air and the mist are one. Now go back to your experience and feel that the silence, the knowing and the breath are one. In this metaphor, the space is pure knowing, the air is silence and the mist is the breath.

“Pure knowing is unknowable as an object, completely transparent. Silence, the absence of sound, is the subtlest of all objects. And the breath is a very fine vibration, the first form of silence, like the mist, barely an object, but just discernable. Feel that these three – pure knowing, the silence, and the breath – are dissolved into one another.”

Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

See also: www.rupertspira.com/