contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

SOPHIAN WISDOM

This post is about Sophian wisdom and how to nurture it. It is based on a new understanding of a familiar story. In October 2016  (1), I reviewed Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight (2). Bolte Taylor, then a neuroanatomist at the Harvard Medical School, experienced a devastating stroke. There was terrible loss, and luminous discovery. Her left-brain hemisphere was almost destroyed and needed eight years of intensive work to recover. She lost her agency, her language centres, her narrative identity, her memories, her ambition, her busyness and her ‘hostility’ (her own word). “Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning”. But a quality of experiencing continued – peaceful, at times euphoric, with what Bolte Taylor subsequently described as a sense of grace, and of being-at-one with the universe.

Even from within this state, Bolte Taylor eventually found the will to recover what she had lost. But this would not be a simple return to life before the stroke. “It would have to be something new …When I experienced the haemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my ‘self’, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a very clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely connected to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world”.

According to Bolte Taylor, “the right brain thinks in collages and images. Responding to the longer wave lengths of light, its visual perception is blended and softened, with a lack of edge that allows it to dwell on the bigger picture and how things relate to one another. It tunes in to the lower frequencies of sound that are readily generated by our body gurgles and other natural tones. It is biologically designed to readily tune in to our physiology”.

For me, now, Bolte Taylor’s story suggests an understanding of Sophia and what her wisdom might be pointing to. She quotes a saying: ‘peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve’.  We can live from this insight without the need for a stroke. My contemplative practice works to actualise this insight in a more gradual, gentler way. But to live a full human life, we need all our resources. As Bolte Taylor says. “We begin in this place, but we don’t isolate ourselves there. We need to use the skills of the left mind too, permeating it with this sense of peace and connectedness”.

The left mind “perceives the shorter wavelengths of light, increasing its ability to clearly delineate sharp boundaries – adept at identifying separation lines between adjacent entities. It tunes into the higher frequencies of sound, supporting the development and use of language. It speaks constantly, weaves stories, processes information with remarkable speed and efficiency, maintains personal identity and communicates with the outside world”, Thus the wisdom of Sophia starts from the peaceful and connected consciousness of our ‘right mind’ while using the skills of our’ left mind’ to bring it out in the wider world.

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

(2) Jill Bolte Taylor My Stroke of Insight: a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.

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. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.

In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.

I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

RUMI: BEING HUMAN

This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning is a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all,

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest as honourable.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I discovered this poem when learning Focusing, a peer and reciprocal support system described by one group of practitioners as based on a ‘bio-spirituality’. As such ‘a guide from beyond’ would be described, rather, as ‘a guide from within’. From the perspective of the discursive mind, I find, it amounts to the same thing.

Focusing works on the understanding that we can hold every experience within a larger presence that is loving but not identified with the experience or lost in it. I am not ‘the dark thought, the shame, the malice’, but I can acknowledge it as something in me that I can lovingly welcome. I can keep it company. This welcoming and keeping company is the essence of the practice, discovering what unfolds – rather than trying to fix or banish the initially unwanted part. For there is a wisdom in the wound. As Leonard Cohen famously put it, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light comes in’.

For more information about Focusing, there are several useful websites:

https://focusingresources.com/

https://www.biospiritual.org/

http://www.focusing.org.uk/

https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

 

A NEW INQUIRY CYCLE

After an eight-month silence, I feel prompted to write again. These months have featured both continuity and change in my contemplative life. I have decided to stay with the theme of Contemplative Inquiry, framing my work as a new inquiry cycle.

I  wrote in August 2018 that ‘I find ‘healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness’*. At the same time my ‘Sophian Way’ has taken what might be described as a secular turn, as a loving friendship with wisdom and its source. In this respect I follow in the footsteps of those ancient Greeks who invented philosophy (love of wisdom) as a new space somewhat independent of their gods and traditional stories.

They used this space to ask, more directly, questions about being human, about what it is that supports human flourishing, and looked for new ways of understanding the world in which they found themselves. I have come to value contemplative life mostly as a context and support in relating to myself, other people, culture and nature. Hence, again following the Greeks, my contemplative life and inquiry include (using their own terms) therapeutics, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Contemplative presence warmly holds the life of the body, feelings, mind and imagination. It is their ground and home. The inquiry moves beyond that space, and into the wider world.

In early posts, I will look in more detail at ways of working that now guide me, offer a new understanding of Sophia, engage with a deeper exploration of the term ‘secular’ and look at the problems raised by metaphysical truth claims and how I deal with them. I hope that these posts will establish the note of the new inquiry cycle.

 

ENDING ‘CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY’

This blog began in support of a new, specifically contemplative thread within modern Druidry. Over time, this ceased to be the dominant theme and I have looked at many approaches to contemplative spirituality. Gradually, my own approach has clarified as a Sophian Way. At this stage I am not using the metaphor of a path or journey. I am describing a way of life. This includes formal practice, whilst permeating everything. Practices drawn from a variety of sources (including Druidry) now feel naturalized. They have become Sophian. I feel complete.

It is time to let go of this blog. Writing it has helped me a lot. I am grateful to everyone who has companioned me along the way. Letting go is hard, yet also an opening to something else. I will continue to be contemplative and inquiring. Over time I will continue to write. But the forms will change, and for now I look forward to a period of fruitful silence. Within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention.

This blog will stay public for as long as people continue to read posts. If I start a new project, I will provide a link.

 

CARLO ROVELLI ON TIME

“We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come.”

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist working on the physics of space and time, currently directing the quantum gravity research group of the Centre de physique theoretique in Marseille, France.   In his The Order of Time (1), he is writing for a lay readership, offering a naturalist view of time and what it means to us. His reflections draw both on his professional work and his easy familiarity with art, literature, philosophy and music.

In the first section of this book, he deconstructs the time of common-sense. “Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place. A duration can only be associated with the movement of something, with a given trajectory”. Rovelli’s Cosmos shows itself through change, events and processes – not through entities or things. We can know it only through what happens, interacts and evolves; through becoming rather than being. The notion that the present is ‘real’, while the past and future are not, only works if we define ‘present’ locally and in an approximate way.

From the standpoint of quantum mechanics, time is ‘granular’ and not continuous. (The Goddess is a pointillist). Grains, or quanta, of time last for a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. “In other words, a minimal interval of time exists. Below this, the notion of time does not exist, even in its most basic meaning”. Quanta of time, like other quanta, are ‘indeterminate’. “The substratum that determines the duration of time is not an independent entity different from the others that make up the world; it is an aspect of a dynamic field. It jumps, fluctuates, materializes only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale”. Yet the absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving. It is, rather, “a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”

Having arrived at this point in his narrative, Rovelli begins to play with different uses of temporal language in the same space and restores our sense of having ground to stand on. He tells the story of how, in 1967, physicists Bryce de Witt and John Wheeler developed an equation accounting for quantum gravity without any time variable. Rovelli first makes the appropriate science related point: “there is nothing mysterious about the absence of time in the fundamental equation of quantum gravity. It is only the consequence of the fact that, at the fundamental level, no special variable exists”. Then he starts talking personally – with a long passage of reminiscence about how he knew and valued de Witt and Wheeler as his “spiritual fathers” early in his career. He is signaling that the warmth of human subjectivity, kept alive in memory, and allowing for a sense of cultural ancestry, is not after all under threat. Professionally he inhabits a world of loop quantum gravity, where time and space “are approximations of a quantum dynamic that in itself knows neither space nor time”. Personally, he relishes human life and values his human sense of time.

Rovelli then asks: what is going on that allows us even to experience such a life and sense, if time isn’t, in fact, fundamental to it? He responds by talking about ‘emergence’. He reminds us that we see the sky turning around us every day, but we are the ones who are turning. “Is the daily spectacle of a revolving universe ‘illusory’?” he asks. “No, it is real, but it doesn’t involve the cosmos alone. It involves our relation with the sun. We understand it by asking ourselves how we move. Cosmic movement emerges from the relation between the cosmos and ourselves.”. In the case of time, we inhabit a cosmic niche that depends on low entropy, which in turn depends on a forward moving time. We earthlings have a source of low entropy – the sun, which sends us hot photons. The earth radiates heat towards the black sky, emitting colder photons, increasing the level of entropy. We hold that the entropy of the early universe was very low, eventually creating the conditions for our relationship with the sun to happen. But, as with the wheel of the day, this may not reflect the precise state of the universe: “The initial low entropy of the universe, and hence the arrow of time, may be more down to us than the universe itself”. For we observe the universe from within it, interacting with a minuscule proportion of the innumerable particles of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. In every experience, we are situated in the world: within a mind, a brain, a position in space, a moment in time”. Our lived experience shapes our understanding, including our experience of time.

In this sense, time as we know it is our invention, with our brain’s capacity for foresight and recollection the consequence of an evolutionary advantage within our inherited habitat. Rovelli is fine with that. It is truly the time of our experience, our hopes, our memories, our awareness of our own mortality, and much of our philosophy, poetry and music. Rovelli concludes the book with an elegant reflection:

“Song, as Augustine observed, is the awareness of time. It is time. It is the hymn of the Vedas that is itself the flowering of time. In the Benedictus of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the song of the violin is pure beauty, pure desperation, pure joy. We are suspended, holding our breath, feeling mysteriously that this must be the source of meaning, that this is time.

“Then the song fades and ceases. ‘The silver thread is broken, the golden lantern is shattered, the amphora at the fountain breaks, the bucket falls into the well, the earth returns to dust.’ And it is fine like this. We can close our eyes, rest. This all seems fair and beautiful to me. This is time.”

Carlo Rovelli The Order of Time Allen Lane, UK: 2018 Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. (Allen Lane is an imprint of Penguin Books)

 

CULTIVATING VALUES

This post is about practical wisdom – following a Sophian Way in daily life. It reflects my position and priorities at a life-stage where I am less active than in the past, more aware of personal vulnerabilities, yet still with a strong sense of connection and commitment to people and the world.

I am following on from previous posts, a recent one on Ethics and ‘Civilization’ (1) and an older one on Virtues and Vows (2). My language has changed a bit. I am using ‘values’ rather than ‘ethics’ or ‘virtues’. I am thinking in terms of ‘commitments’ rather than vows, with the commitments being commitments to ‘cultivate’ a quality or behaviour. Hence, I say “I will cultivate compassion …” rather than “May I be compassionate …”. I find this language more realistic, more down to earth. The older phrasing suggests that I can make a vow in a wand-waving manner and guarantee compassion as a simple act of will. The new phrasing merely states that I will be on my own case. I will work with my compassion. I will cultivate it so that it can grow in the rough and tumble of life and teach me compassioning in the flowing moment.

I am working with four commitments, each of which is expanded with brief commentary.

  • I will cultivate compassion towards myself, others and the wider world. This includes ruthless compassion – I want to distinguish compassion from sentimentality and appeasement. Compassion seeks what is truly best for everybody, including rude awakenings.
  • I will cultivate positive health and well-being, within whatever constraints may apply. This includes work with diet and exercise, and resiliency factors for mental and emotional health, like connecting, being active, taking notice, continuous learning and giving (3).
  • I will cultivate a life of abundance in simplicity. The dance between these two apparently contrasting terms creates, for me, a specific quality of richness. More widely, it contributes to living lightly on the earth.
  • I will cultivate openness, creativity and discernment. Discernment is the ability to judge well, but without the hard edge often conveyed by ‘judgement’. It tempers openness and edits creativity.

Beyond the commitments themselves, I have a set of value words to work with: compassion, health, well-being, abundance, simplicity, openness, creativity, discernment – and cultivation. I am claiming them as aspects of practical wisdom and as guides. Part of the work is to develop my understanding and application of these words in the light of experience and reflection. Although I am making use of abstract nouns, the process of working with values – if it is to mean anything – is dynamic and developmental.

The Sophian insight is about cultivating qualities rather than simply declaring them. This matters more than specific selection and listing. Wisdom, to be effectively wise, needs to make a difference.

  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/
  2. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/virtues-and-vows/
  3. These are explained in detail at adrianharris.org/blog/2018/06/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

A PARABLE ABOUT A PARABLE

“A young American named Simon Moon, studying Zen in the Zendo (Zen school) at the New Old Lompoc House in Lompoc, California, made the mistake of reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This sinister novel, combined with Zen training, proved too much for poor Simon. He became obsessed, intellectually and emotionally, with the strange parable about the door of the Law which Kafka inserts near the end of his story. Simon found Kafka’s fable so disturbing, indeed, that it ruined his meditations, scattered his wits, and distracted him from the study of the Sutras.

“Somewhat condensed, Kafka’s parable goes as follows:

“A man comes to the door of the Law, seeking admittance. The guard refuses to allow him to pass the door, but says that if he waits long enough, maybe, some day in the uncertain future, he might gain admittance. The man waits and waits and grows older; he tries to bribe the guard, who takes his money but still refuses to let him through the door; the man sells all his possessions to get money to offer more bribes, which the guard accepts – but still does not allow him to enter. The guard always explains, on taking each new bribe, ‘I only do this so that you will not abandon hope entirely.’

“Eventually, the man becomes old and ill, and knows that he will soon die. In his last few moments he summons the energy to ask a question that has puzzled him over the years. ‘I have been told,’ he says to the guard, ‘that the Law exists for all. Why then does it happen that, in all the years I have sat here waiting, nobody else has ever come to the door of the Law?’

“’This door,’ the guard says, ‘has been made only for you. And now I am going to close it forever. And he slams the door as the man dies.

“The more Simon brooded on this allegory, or joke, or puzzle, the more he felt that he could never understand Zen until he first understood this strange tale. If the door existed only for that man, why could he not enter? If the builders posted a guard to keep the man out, why did they also leave the door temptingly open? Why did the guard close the previously open door, when the man had become too old to attempt to rush past him and enter? Did the Buddhist doctrine of dharma (law) have anything in common with this parable?

“Did the door of the Law represent the Byzantine bureaucracy that exists in virtually every modern government, making the whole story a political satire, such as a minor bureaucrat like Kafka might have devised in his subversive off-duty hours? Or did the Law represent God, as some commentators claim, and, in that case, did Kafka intend to parody religion or to defend its divine Mystery obliquely? Did the guard who took bribes but gave nothing but empty hope in return represent the clergy, or the human intellect in general, always feasting on shadows in the absence of real Final Answers?

“Eventually, near breakdown from sheer mental fatigue, Simon went to his roshi (Zen teacher) and tole Kafka’s story of the man who waited at the door of the Law – the door that existed only for him but would not admit him and was closed when death would no longer allow him to enter. ‘Please,’ Simon begged, ‘explain this Dark Parable to me.’

“’I will explain it,’ the roshi said, ‘if you will follow me into the meditation hall.’

“Simon followed the teacher to the door of the meditation hall. When they got there, the teacher stepped inside quickly, turned, and slammed the door in Simon’s face.

“At that moment, Simon experienced Awakening.”

Robert Anton Wilson Quantum Psychology Hilaritas Press,1990.

The author wrote this as the catalyst for a group exercise. First, each participant was invited to try to explain or interpret Kafka’s parable and the Zen Master’s response. Second, they were asked to observe whether a consensus emerges from the discussion, or whether each person finds a personal and unique meaning.

THE COMPLETED HUMAN BEING

22 July is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and this post is a short extract from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest based in the United States (1). Her understanding draws heavily on Gnostic Gospels banned in the 4th century and recovered in the 20th. It articulates a Sophian, or Magdalenian, Christianity – a Gnostic Christianity – in a modern form. At the very least, it deserves space in our cultural memory, as a treasure not to lose again through carelessness, forgetting, or organised misrepresentation.

“In the Gospel of Philip, as in the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, the backdrop against which everything unfolds is the quest for the Anthropos ‘the completed human being’.   Philip makes it expressly clear, however, that this two-becoming-one is not simply a union of opposites as we understand it nowadays: not simply the integration of the masculine and feminine, or any of the other great binaries. … The primordial union is   [that of ]   one’s temporal humanity with its eternal prototype or ‘angel’… one Heart, one Being, one Will.”

But this is not all. Singleness is not all.  “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion, love come full in the act of giving itself away. The nondualism of the Western metaphysical stream is a flowing unity – a ‘not one, not two, but both one and two’ in which the continuous exchange of twoness and oneness in the dance of self-giving love captures the very dynamism of the divine life itself. To discover myself as a divine being is certainly a spiritual attainment, but to discover myself as the divine beloved is to discover something even more intimate and profound”.

(1) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010

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