by contemplativeinquiry

Recently I reviewed Godless Pagans: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (1) which I enjoyed very much. There’s a growing community of Pagans clearly identified as ‘humanistic’ and/or ‘naturalistic’ – see – and I am wondering about how I sit with this approach.

I am dedicated to contemplative inquiry. I see it as naturalistic. But I am also aware of the way in which terms like ‘empiricism’, ‘science’ and even ‘humanism’ can be mobilized for a certain type of fighting talk. This says that valid knowledge can be based only on third-person, objectifying inquiry conducted on a hypothesis-experiment-results model. I am engaged in a first person inquiry, which also extends to community and culture, as in my Contemplative Druidry book (2), so for me this is a potential problem.

In response I pick up a book off my shelves, and dust it off. The title says Qualitative Research in Counselling and Therapy (3). A half-remembered store of magic words is laid out before me in the accessible form of chapter headings: qualitative inquiry, hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnographic approaches, grounded theory, conversation, narrative and discourse analysis, bricolage. I used to work in the field of public health and health research, with sexual health, mental health and ageing as my main focus at different times: all areas where lived experience and issues of culture, meaning and value are of great importance.  So I’ve long had a concern with an extended epistemology, which takes these areas into account.

There have been many attempts to bring different pathways to knowledge together and identify what the togetherness might look like. One of the most recent is Ken Wilber’s Quadrants model (4), which sits as the Q in a larger system called AQAL. The quadrants look like this:




The subjective life world – thoughts, feelings, meanings, meditative states

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality


An exemplary text would be: In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust




Atoms, brains, bodies, behaviours, organism

Explored in natural science, scientific medicine, philosophy of science


An exemplary text would be: Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett




Shared meanings, relationships, mutual understanding, the influence of culture, media, community

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality; also philosophy and ‘qualitative’ social science


An exemplary text would be: The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault



Systems, environments, technology, cosmology

Explored in the domains of natural science, philosophy of science and ‘quantitative’ social science


An exemplary text would be: A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss



The basic outline above is Wilber’s. I have added the bits that suggest subject domains and key texts which I know well enough to put in the boxes – in both of the multi-volume works on the left, the first volume makes to point on its own. I value all the quadrants, whilst having a clear bias towards the left hand. My contemplative inquiry is in the upper left quadrant, though my beliefs in no separate self and interdependence push me out, especially towards the lower left hand but to an extent over to the right as well. In this perilous Anthropocene era, how could they not?

Contemplative inquiry in the narrower sense is about consciousness and conscious being. Here I follow James Hillman in suggesting “suggesting a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination” (5). Hillman places himself in a western lineage going back from Jung, “through Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus and Plato to Heraclitus”. All I can say is that from a subjective lifeworld perspective this makes complete sense to me, though in my reading I’d emphasize the term ‘starts from’ – the third person perspective also matters and all the other factors mentioned clearly have their role.

In taking this stand I have recently gained comfort from an unexpected source, the neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Sam Harris. A friend and associate of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris is not persuaded that Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (6) albeit a brilliant and fascinating book, has fully lived up to its title, or could be expected to. Harris says (7):

“We know of course that human minds are the product of human brains. There is simply no question that your ability to decode and understand this sentence depends on neurophysiological events taking place inside your head at this moment. But most of this mental work occurs entirely in the dark, and it is a mystery why part of this process should be attended by consciousness. Nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence for it in the universe – nor would we have any notion of the many physical states it gives rise to. The only proof that it is like something to be you at this moment is the fact (obvious only to you) that it is like something to be you.”

Harris is well versed in both contemplative practice and scientific investigation, and so is at ease both with the exterior and interior approaches to consciousness. He has experience of the self-less state and is also clear about describing selflessness as “not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness, but right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it”: no need to invoke divinity-as-subject or traditionally mystical views of ‘enlightenment’ as heroic attainment. I for my part experience Headlessness, very available in the Douglas Harding method -see website at  – as perfectly containing the poetry of mind. It’s ‘only’ natural. How miraculous nature is!

(1) Halstead, J. (ed.) (2016) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans com (Foreword by Mark Green)

(2) Nichol, J. (2014) Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(3) McLeod, J. (2001) Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy London: Sage

(4) Wilber, K. (et al) (2008) Integral Life Practice: a 21st century blueprint for physical health, emotional balance, mental clarity, and spiritual awakening Boston & London: Integral Books

(5) Hillman, J. (1990) The essential James Hillman: A blue fire London: Routledge. (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

(6) Dennett, D. (1990) Consciousness explained London: Penguin

(7) Harris, S. (2014) Waking up: searching for spirituality without religion London: Transworld Publishers