contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: July, 2018

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

WELL-BEING: CONTEMPLATING ACTION

“In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett put inequality at the centre of public debate by showing conclusively that less equal societies fare worse than more equal ones across everything from education to life expectancy. The Inner Level explains how inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel and behave. It sets out the overwhelming evidence that material inequities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority. A deep well of data and analysis is drawn upon to empirically show, for example, that low social status is associated with elevated levels of stress hormones, and how rates of anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which make that status paramount.” (1)

What links contemplation and action? My answer is creative and powerful ideas. In a recent post (2), I cited Brendan Myers (3) proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good (a powerful, creative idea), and that it depends on us supporting each other’s well-being and that of the biosphere and the Earth itself (another powerful creative idea). The Spirit Level and The Inner Level concern ‘developed’ countries in the 21st century and to an extent the last two decades of the 20th. They paint a depressing picture, especially for the U.K. and the U.S.A, and for me it shows the need to champion a social ecology that supports health and well-being.

For some years I worked at the interface between public health (i.e. population-based health, largely concerned with prevention work and the creation of more supportive environments) and mental health. So, I am interested in the recent publication of The Inner Level (4) and may write further about it. Thinking about ‘health’ in the bigger picture (with service provision as only one aspect) is a positive way into social justice work, where powerful ideas can (in principle) be realised through ethical passion and political will informed by scientific evidence. It is a notion of how to do public policy that needs to be kept alive.

I know this doesn’t happen much, now, in a culture like ours with high levels of bullying, confusion, distraction and misinformation. We seem to be living with an orchestrated dumbing down of political discourse in the service of oligarchic interests. So, my first action – not always recognised as action – is personal resistance to any onset of cynicism, numbness and despair within myself. My second action – also not always recognised as action – is to work at maintaining an adequate level of knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, using the lens of ‘powerful ideas’ to make sense of the information I digest. This includes having an historical perspective – both backwards and forwards – on current events. My third action is to place myself within networks that share my concerns and are responding to them in diverse ways – hopefully modelling cultures of: compassion (including ruthless compassion); openness and creativity; curiosity about the world; and criticality (deconstructive where necessary and appreciative where possible) in the realm of ideas and action. Further developments will come from there, and I will write about them within this blog.

Over time my contemplative life has moved towards a blend of energy work and meditative connection to source, with the practice forms kept simple. It is also the clear, awake space out of which I act in the world.

(1) https://www.equalitytrust.uk/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(4) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being

DAILY CULTIVATION

“Whatever system of spirituality you practice, do it every day. If it is prayer, then pray every day. If it is meditation, then meditate every day. If it is exercise, then exercise every day. … This methodical approach is reassuring in several ways. First, it provides you with a process and a means to maintain progress even if that particular day is not inspiring or significant. Just to practice is already good. Secondly, it gives you a certain faith. If you practice every day, it is inevitable that you gain from it. Thirdly, constant practice gives you a certain satisfaction. … [You} can take comfort from the momentum it has given you”.

There have been times in my life when I have followed this approach and times when I have not. I have had a daily practice for the last twelve years and I’m expecting this to continue. For all my inquiring, my looking at different traditions and perceived gains in insight, the pattern and form of my practice has been stable for eight years now. I like it that way for the reasons given by Deng Ming-Tao above. The pattern and form itself holds me up and sustains me. It is one of the things that gives my life a context – more than anything other than close personal relationships.

(1) Deng Ming-Tao 365 Tao Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

ATHENE: PRACTICAL WISDOM

In Greek tradition, Athene is Goddess of Wisdom. Hers is a pragmatic wisdom – “good counsel, thinking through, or practical foresight – the capacity to reflect” (1) In a contest for the rulership of Attica, Poseidon shows that he rules the waves; Athene constructs the ship to ride them. Poseidon provides a horse; Athene bridles it and builds a chariot. Poseidon makes a salt spring gush up from the depths of the earth; Athene offers the carefully cultivated olive. Athene blends creative imagination with dexterity and skill. “She teaches weaving, wool-working, carpentry and all manner of handicrafts whose success depends on holding in the mind an image of the end”.

She also combines her Wisdom role with a Warrior one, where “even in war, she is controlled, in contrast to Ares’ savage and indiscriminate rage, and she easily defeats him in combat. She comes to the side of Achilles when he needs self-discipline, and to Odysseus when he needs strategy and foresight. Here, in the Iliad, Achilles is deliberating whether to reach for his sword in his quarrel with Agamemnon:

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses

and was drawing from his scabbard the great sword, Athene descended

from the sky.

The goddess standing behind Peleus’ son caught him by the fair hair,

appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.

Achilles in amazement turned about, and straightway

knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“Significantly it is in a moment of reflection occasioned by his conflicting impulses that Athene appears, as the epiphany of his victory over unbridled instinct…. The quality of restraint is the value she embodies, and her ‘flashing eyes’ are the emblem of a lucid intelligence that can see beyond the immediate satisfaction.

The word metis was linked to this kind of wisdom, and it was highly valued. With metis, a person could chop wood better than through strength alone; pilot a ship through storms in the dark; or win a hotly contested chariot race. However, the word could also have overtones of shrewdness or craftiness or thinking too much on an event. Odysseus was known as polymetis (he of many counsels), with both Athene and Hermes to guide him.

At first glance, this seems a long way from the world of Sophia (Hokhmah) in Jewish and Gnostic tradition. But there are certain parallels. Three years ago (2), I wrote, “I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother”. As an Olympian, Athene’s formal relation to nature is ambivalent, but she certainly has worldly concerns. Whilst also not locked into the role of earth mother, she too is willing to support and mentor humans. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. Athene, too, in a more pragmatic way, asks for an increase in awareness and a less impulsive response to experience. Sophia represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. Athene is highly creative, and has her own wisdom, here based on skill, inventiveness and a capacity to be intentional and strategic. Although universal love and compassion feature little in the Homeric world, she is loyal to those she cares about and engaged with their fortunes. As a lens on how contemplation informs creativity and action, the archaic Athene extends and enriches my understanding of the Sophian archetype.

  1. Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sophia-hohmah/

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

In his Reclaiming Civilization (1), modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers asks three questions: What is civilization? What is wrong with it? What should we do about it? As part of his work with the third question, he looks at ethics. He starts with the proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good. This proposition may seem simple and obvious, yet it has not been a reliable quality of ‘civilization’ as we know and have known it.

Myers goes on to describe virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a flourishing happy life, we need to install ways of understanding, responding to, and acting in the world that will tend to support it. These are the virtues. Through the process of identifying and working with virtues, we reach towards the person we want to be and the world we want to live in. Myers implies a necessary inner work, when he speaks of “the possibility of a greater depth of life-experience that can appear when I am willing to let go of my illusions, willing to risk harm and despair, in pursuit of a more honest relationship with reality” He then presents his own list, offering his virtues as ways of responding to three ‘immensities’: earth, interpersonal otherness, and solitude/death.

For earth, the virtues are “those ways of being in the world that enable you to look upon the earth, in all its beauty and danger yet feel no need to own it all, nor to destroy it … but to explore it, play with it, know it. Myers recommends “virtues of wonder: including imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, aesthetic taste, and curiosity”. He adds that this does not preclude practices such as farming but does call for them to be “conducted in careful (as in full-of-care), sustainable and co-operative ways”.

For interpersonal otherness, the virtues are “those ways of being that enable you to look upon your neighbor, however strange or different she may be, and feel no need to make her conform to your demands, nor a need to send her away (such as, to her death) … the virtues … enable you to see another earth, in a manner of speaking … your neighbor’s eyes are another way of looking upon the earth … you have another way of exploring it”. Here, Myers recommends “virtues of humanity” – care, courage, friendship, generosity and the “Seven Grandfathers of Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love and Respect”.

For “the immensity of solitude, and of death”, the virtues are qualities that contradict any need to avoid solitude and death at “any cost, however destructive to yourself and others”. These, for Myers, are “virtues of integrity: including reason, consistency, dignity, Socratic wisdom, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness, mercy, the will to establish a legacy, and the will to let go”.

When I reviewed Reclaiming Civilization last year (2) I knew that I would want to return to it and examine its ethical approach more closely. What I like about this approach is that it avoids both a ‘follow your bliss’ vagueness and a rigid prescriptive system. It fits very well with my sense of a Sophian Way. It suggests principles and a method and then challenges us to develop our own list. Here, we have an ethics that asks for close attention, questioning and (I would suggest) a continuous work of understanding our chosen ‘virtues’ and checking them out in practice. For me, the notion of a flourishing life for ourselves and others has to extend to the biosphere. A purely human approach no longer serves even we humans ourselves. I also like an approach that (without being partisan) has political implications. It is not just an ethics for private life. Myers provides a tool for living the ‘good life’, and perhaps, identifying possible contributions to reclaiming (and re-framing) ‘civilization’ – the central theme of Myers’ book and the context for his ethical discussion.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-recl…ing-civilization/ ‎

 

 

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