Exploring ethics through contemplative trance and active imagination
In Clear and Present Thinking (1) a book about logic, Brendan Myers includes a Chapter on Moral Reasoning. In this chapter he talks about Virtue Theory as one “where the weight of moral concern is on the character and identity of the person who acts and chooses, as well as the habits he or she develops and discharges through her actions and their consequences”.
Some days after reading this, I found myself in my inner sacred space, a heart space, the garden of the Goddess. I was not doing any formal practice. I was just there. When the garden first emerged, it was specifically as Sophia’s garden. And so it was this time.
There was a banner hanging from a tree branch, hawthorn I think. It was red, with a gold pentangle inscribed on it. I recognised it as the heraldic emblem from Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2). In this 14th century English poem the pentangle is introduced as a token of fidelity first devised by King Solomon. It is unbroken anywhere, and known in England as the ‘endless knot’. The poem involves an interrogation of ‘virtue’ as understood both in King Arthur’s Camelot and in the older world of the Green Knight far to the north. Gawain will have to navigate both physical perils and moral ambiguities.
Why did I find this device, as a spontaneously emerging image, in Sophia’s Garden? Firstly, I had been thinking about virtue ethics as described by Brendan Myers. Secondly, the pentangle in this form has been a significant image for me ever since I encountered the poem in my late teens. I’ve revisited it from time to time ever since, and this includes the reading of John Matthews’ Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (3) which makes the link with Sophia. “In the Gnostic system, Sophia, the divine emanation of the Godhead, would not permit anyone to enter her Realm of Light, unless they were in complete balance, and bore the sign of the pentangle upon them”.
The offered meaning, as I see it, is that when addressing virtue ethics, I can’t rely on reason alone. Virtue ethics is up close and personal, more than an abstract principle or set of rules. I need to mobilise more of myself. In Sophia’s Garden I’m in a deepened form of awareness, and can contemplate the imagery using heart and intuition as well as rationality. They all work together.
Allowing the vision, I entered a light trance, with the image firmly in mind. I lay down with pen and paper near. I fell asleep for a short period – not part of the plan, but cleansing and useful. On waking I had words: Love/Wisdom. Sophia is Goddess of Love/Wisdom. The love is the greater quality, and it is an Eros fuelled love, for Sophia is the emanation of the Divine who ‘fell’ and then recovered (4). There must an opening up and movement towards someone or something, however slight and tentative, for it to be ‘love’. Whereas I owe justice and a pre-supposition of basic good will towards sentient beings, love is in my experience beyond command and does not result from a conscious act of will – though I can certainly work at expanding my potential to be a conduit. Wisdom is connected to this love, acting as a detector of distortions – empty or ungrounded sentiment, unaware compulsion, possessive attachment, ‘spiritual’ love as world rejecting flight, or driven and reckless forms of generosity lacking in self-care.
But love modifies wisdom too. Wisdom here is too energised to be altogether prudential. Counting the cost may make sense, but it’s not the only criterion. Wisdom uses the head yet is lodged in the heart. At the same time, wisdom also knows that ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ as words can begin to solidify into things, always a problem with ‘nouning’. They can become wooden idealisations devoid of context and process, accessories to self-image, identity performance and external reputation. They can become alienated and commodified. They can even turn and be turned against us. So wisdom guards herself and love by guarding against too much reference to ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’.
At this stage I’m thinking again of the pentangle and wanting to use it to bring the virtues into relationship with each other rather than separating them out. I’m feeling happy about using this traditional framework so long as I can be playful with it. For I understand this to be the Sophian Way – with solemnity seen as having a stupefying effect, anaesthetising awareness. So in this ethics of the endless knot, I place love at the apex of the pentangle as I look at the banner, I move down to the base on my right, igniting the love/wisdom link.
Then, moving diagonally up left from the base I come to justice, for love and wisdom need justice in the world for the sake of their own flourishing: injustice inhibits the free flow of love and wisdom. I’ve already named justice, and fairness, as something I owe to all on a personal level, based on a presupposition of basic good will. I’m also clear about the need to work for justice in the wider world. On this, my vision is of a justice is careful of its methods, or it risks licensing revenge, both in power and opposition. Care about language and imagery are themselves a work for justice. Injustice wants to constrain and police these great resources. It seeks to close down their emancipatory magic. Working for justice is rational activity in service to love and wisdom. Sophia has always cried out against injustice, false justice and no justice. She has an ambivalent relationship with the law.
The classical virtue following on from justice, as I move in a straight line from left to right, is courage. What kind of courage am I looking at? For me it’s not about ‘warriorship’, with its theatricality and somewhat militaristic associations, however reframed for current values and conditions. (Perhaps that’s why my pentangle is inscribed on a banner rather than a shield.) Rather, it combines resilience with witnessing. Early Taoism captures the resilience aspect: “true goodness is like water … it goes right down to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way” and “the hard sword fails, the stiff tree’s felled. The hard and great go under. The soft and weak stay up” (5). I understand witnessing in a ‘truth to power’ sense and link it to my notion of care about emancipatory, life and world-expanding language and imagery and the need to guard them. This witnessing courage, to be honourable, may involve the willing loss of recognised honour and standing in a world that is formally virtuous. So it depends on a strong inner authority and a willingness to go against tribal custom. This is the courage I would tie in with love, wisdom and justice.
Moving down diagonally from courage, we come to the base of the golden pentangle on the left hand side, where I place temperance. In the course of its long history, ‘temperance’ has tended to shift from ideas of moderation to ideas of abstinence, as culture and religion have changed. Here and now, I have a resonance of ‘treading lightly on the earth’, in two senses. One is about limiting demands on material resources for the health and flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. The other is about an ultimate non-attachment to material goods, contents of consciousness and the self-image they create. For me, there is a balance here which is why the word temperance comes in. I can love my possessions, my ideas and visions, my loved ones, my neighbours and my sense of who I am. But I am not fundamentally identified, not wholly immersed, in them. For these forms of love, if they are to flourish, demand some space around them, and there is a sense in which I am alone even within these nourishing interconnections. In another sense I am not. For I can go back to the simplicity of aware being and loving, timelessly arising from the fertile latency of the void. In this way I complete the endless knot.
This vision and reflection are only a beginning. I intend to continue engaging with this ethical approach, integrating it into my contemplative inquiry.
- Brendan Myers, Charlotte Elsby, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray & Nola Semczyszyn Clear and Present Thinking: a Handbook in Logic and Rationality, Version 1.1 (21st May 2013) Available via brendanmyers.net or Amazon/Kindle
- Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License – see creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edited with an introduction, prose translation and notes by W. R. J. Barron. (Revised edition) Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998
- John Matthews Sir Gawain Knight of the Goddess (Revised edition) Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998
- Pistis Sophia: a Gnostic Gospel translated into English with an introduction and annotated bibliography by G. R. S. Mead. Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (New Foreword for American Edition by Richard K. Russell
- Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. LeGuin)