contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2019

FACING EXTINCTION

My survival is on the line, along with any legacy and any memory of me. This applies to everyone I know and care for, and everyone else too. It applies to everything in culture and nature for which I have an affinity or to which I feel connected. Whenever I let this in, really let it in rather than just acknowledging it, I feel freshly shocked. Threat feels immediate. I have no sense of time.

After the first sense of a physical-energetic punch, there comes a pause, followed by a chaos of feelings, thoughts and images that stream for a while through my being. Eventually the storm passes. I regain some equilibrium, and with it a fuller presence in the flowing moment. There is something in the sheer joy of experiencing that remains unsullied and becomes my anchor. But I still need to ask myself how I stand with this awful knowledge, alongside another awful knowledge of the nuclear threat, and the normal knowledge of my own natural death. How do I respond to any of these? How, specifically, do I respond to ecological breakdown? The timescale here isn’t quite the possible ‘anytime’ of the other threats, and I may not be around. But it’s dangerously close, already compromising the life of the wider world. How do I hold this understanding? What do I do?

For me, this points to the value of psycho-spiritual as well as political work in facing the threat of a mass extinction on planet Earth. Last week I attended a promising taster for a forthcoming online course ‘Facing Reality’ (see https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/ calendar). This will use Focusing methods to look at what ecological breakdown means “for your life, work and relationships. How is it impacting you? What happens when you take it in?”. It starts from the premise that “many of us are feeling overwhelmed and confused but it’s hard to know what to do about it. In response, we often either turn away or dive into action without seriously confronting our reality and giving enough space to feel into our emotional and intuitive response. By finding the courage to turn towards the mess we are in with a like-minded community, we can empower our response in a more authentic way and build personal agency for our creativity, gifts and action”.

The course leaders quote a saying to the effect that we can avoid reality, but not the consequences of avoiding reality. Courses like this are a good way of facing reality in a supportive environment, and I plan to be part of this one. This one is open to the public. You don’t need a Focusing training to take part.

PYRRHO, SCEPTICISM, ARNE NAESS

In my last post  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/ ‎I introduced Pyrrho of Elis, a Pagan Greek philosopher who, returning from an extended visit to India, sounded a new note in Greek philosophy. In the Greek cultural context, this was heard as a variant form of Scepticism. Originally a skeptikos was “a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates etc.” (1) though over time Scepticism came to signify a kind of compulsive doubting, as it does now. The extract below shows the distinctiveness of Pyrrho’s project, and its likely debt to Buddhist ideas of the time.

“Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with Scepticism in Western philosophy. But unlike Sceptics, who believe there are no true beliefs, Pyrrhonists suspend judgement about all beliefs, including the belief that there are no true beliefs. Pyrrhonism was developed by a line of ancient Greek philosophers, from its founder Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth century BCE through Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. Since beliefs are attachments to what is not evident, they say, and are therefore distorting, uncertain, and subject to challenge and contradiction, they generate anxiety and fear, compounding suffering. By suspending judgement on beliefs, Pyrrhonists seek to liberate themselves from attachment to things nonevident; having achieved this, they claim a certain tranquillity (ataraxia) follows. Only appearances are evident, they say, these being sensations and thoughts which we cannot help having, which are involuntary, and it is by them rather than by our beliefs that we should live.

“Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism. Indeed, its origins can plausibly be traced to the contacts between Pyrrho and the sages he encountered in India, where he travelled with Alexander the Great. Even though Pyrrhonism went on to develop in a Greek idiom without reference to Eastern traditions, the similarity is remarkable, suggesting a commonality of insight not much explored. Although Pyrrhonism has not been practised in the West since ancient times, its insights occasionally have been independently recovered, most recently in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. They remain relevant, perhaps more than ever, as an antidote to today’s cultures of belief.” (1)

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher now associated with the the deep ecology movement and coiner of the term ‘ecosophy’, was a modern admirer of Pyrrhonism and wrote a book about it in 1968 (2). I intend to follow this up in my continuing inquiry, partly to find out how his engagement with Pyrrho and Greek Scepticism may have informed his later development..

  1. Adrian Kuzminski Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism New York: Lexington Books, 2008
  2. Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968)

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

 

 

 

 

 

SPIRITUAL TRUTH CLAIMS

Traditional spiritualities tend to be organized around metaphysical propositions that can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted. Stephen Batchelor (1) gives examples: ‘God is love’, ‘creation arose from the breath of the One’, ‘bliss is eternal union with Brahman’, and ‘you will only come to the father through me’.

In the specific case of Buddhism, Batchelor questions the classical understanding of how craving causes suffering: “Craving is the origin of suffering because … it causes actions that lead to your being born, getting sick, growing old and dying”. These existential realities in themselves, and not simply how we deal with them, are included in the word dukka, which we translate as suffering. The overall claim makes sense only within the metaphysical framework of karma and rebirth.

Batchelor worries that, with a proposition of this kind, “one finds oneself in the language game ‘In Search of Truth’.” If you believe them to be true, then you qualify to be a Buddhist. If you don’t, you don’t qualify. “One is thus tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of separation that can lead to cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast as well”.

I have noticed for myself that even in modern paths, where experiential and inquiry methods are favoured over blind belief, there can be a powerful narrative of ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’. There is no recognised space for getting something else. To me this suggests a continuing immersion in the language game ‘in Search of Truth’. I follow Stephen Batchelor in taking a secular turn partly for this reason, and my solution is a stance of positive sceptical openness. An ancient Western tradition, Pyrrhonism, supports this view. Its founder, the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, developed this teaching after returning from India, where he had accompanied the army of Alexander ‘the Great’. Pyrrhonism was understood in the Greek world as a variant form of the influential Sceptic school. It has parallels with currents in early Buddhism, sharing the notion of an inner peace linked to freedom from attachment to beliefs. But Greek philosophers were not monks, and it did not create a renunciate religious culture of the Indian kind. I will look at this tradition more closely as part of my continuing inquiry.

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

 

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.

 

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