contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

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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)

 

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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

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/ ‎

 

 

SOPHIA SOURCE OF WISDOM

“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)

STILL POINT

My last post developed out of the phrase: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. My wondering about ‘stillness’ began when I was introduced to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at the age of about sixteen,  finding its language and imagery clear and strong. They were a little beyond my reach, but continued to haunt me.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor

fleshless.

Neither from not towards; at the still point where the dance

Is,

But neither arrest or movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

“Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.”

 

1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/pneuma-the-divine-breath/

2) T. S. Eliot Four Quartets London: Faber & Faber, 1946 (Extract from Burnt Norton, the first quartet)