contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Naturalistic Paganism

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

I began my contemplative journey with a sense of mysticism, which I would now reframe as “attentiveness and wonder” (1). My path has become firmly this-worldly, a stance that has varied over the six years since I launched the inquiry, at a solo Samhain Druid ritual. The group practice that developed for contemplative Druidry was naturalistic from the beginning, finding the numinous within the mundane. The Buddhist sangha with which I am linked (2) is also world oriented. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of all that the earth contains, and a way of wisdom and compassion in every day life.

My path continues to be a contemplative inquiry. It is an inquiry, because I am in an open process of bringing my truth into being, a truth which remains provisional, agnostic, limited by my human horizons. Within this inquiry, contemplative methods both train the attention and open up spaces for wonder.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, initiator of the secular mindfulness movement, calls it ‘reverence’. For him this touches us when we are “transported by some marvelous strain of music, or when struck by the artistry of a great painting … I am speaking of the mystery of the very existence of an event or object, its ‘isness’. In the case of a work of art, even the artist can’t tell how it came about” (3). At such times, it is better leave words alone and allow our senses, and our feelings, to speak for themselves.

But Kabat-Zinn warns that, since we don’t have words for “ for such numinous and luminous feelings”, we often forget how prevalent they are in our experience. We can easily become inured to them and cease noticing that we even have such feelings or are capable of having them, so caught up we can be in a certain way of knowing to the exclusion of others.” (3). This provides one of my motivations for formal spiritual work (the others having to do with wisdom and compassion).  It helps to me to shake up the mindset that stops me from noticing. To speak of the results in an Existentialist’s language of ‘attentiveness and wonder’ works well for me, better than my older use of ‘mysticism’.

(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945 (first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962). Merleau-Ponty wrote in his preface: “Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing the truth into being. … It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valery or Cezanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or history as that meaning comes into being”.

(2) https://coiuk.org/

(3)Jon Kabat-Zinn Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion e-Book, 2005

Advertisements

SPIDER

I’ve been busy with spiders over the last few weeks, noticing their variety both indoors and out. There’s one outside my window as I write. Some of this attention has involved removing spiders from the house. As I become more sensitized to their sentience, I’ve grown somewhat ambivalent about this. Yet from a wider household perspective, it does need to be done. The extract below is from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and looks at the life of a spider.

“Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly ‘programmed in its genes.’ Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parent and predecessors. Whatever ‘instructions’, however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself in any given moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distances between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening.

“The genome could not have explicitly commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited ‘programs’, patterns or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate its genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’”.

David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

This book has been an inspiration to many people over the last 20 years, including both naturalist and animist Pagans. The extract comes from a section entitled The Mindful Life of the Body.

NATURALISTIC ANIMISM: SEEING THE TREES FOR THE ENTS

Great contribution by John Halstead to the re-visioning of Animism.

Humanistic Paganism

The Tree or the Spirit of the Tree?

Those who believe in personal gods sometimes have difficulty understanding non-theistic nature worship. I have heard it said that we cannot possibly be worshipping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; we must be worshiping a divine force “within” or “behind” the natural phenomena, something like Greek dryads or J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Ents, the personification of the spirits of the trees.

From a theistic perspective this makes sense. After all, Orthodox Christians do not worship their icons, and Pagan polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods. So some theists have difficulty understanding the non-theistic worship of physical nature. They assume that worship requires a conscious person on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it seems absurd to worship unconscious nature.

On the other hand, many Naturalistic Pagans are uncomfortable with…

View original post 1,581 more words

WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

INTERPRETATION IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

This post, the last in a series on practising contemplative inquiry, concerns interpretation. Previous posts covered values and methods.

In my post about values (1) I introduced ‘delicate empiricism’, an idea that goes back to Goethe and which I see as very Sophian. Arthur Zajonc recommends this idea to us by reflecting that “we have precious little information that bears directly on the true nature of reality. Data and theories are bound to experience, so we cannot say what reality is ‘in itself’, but only how it appears to us” (2).  Such a view invites us to “set aside all notions of a real world beyond experience and stay with experience itself. We cultivate an attitude that values phenomena of all types”. We simply give space for experiences to unfold and “resist the tendency to explain them away as merely brain oscillations, or to imagine them as the visitation of angelic presences. Neither view is admitted. We stay with them, allowing them their time and place in our attention”.

When I do exercises from the Headless Way (3), I enter into a state in which I experience myself as ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’. I explore this state both as an experience and as a resource. Douglas Harding speaks with certainty that “this Clarity I see here and now (with or without the aid of this in-pointing finger) is that of each of my constituent cells, molecules, atoms, particles, as well as of my planet, star and galaxy and universe, no less than it is Douglas Edward Harding’s. As this Clarity or Void, I embrace this hierarchy throughout time, and I AM the Timeless and Changeless Origin and Centre of all those timeful and changing things. Not just his brain, but every part of him is born and dies. I do neither.” (4)  I do not share the certainty that being ‘clear awake space’ fills a God sized hole that is also my ultimate identity. I know that this is the view of many non-dualist traditions. I entertain the possibility. At times I work ‘as if’ it were true, to get a sense of a life lived from such an understanding, and the difference it makes. Yet I remember that this story is not the state itself. Delicate empiricism finds strength and value in unknowing, gently contradicting any desire for closure, or for refuge in belief.

Sam Harris makes the opposite interpretive error, in my view. Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non Apocalypse” (5) linked to the emergence of the anti-theistic New Atheism of a decade ago. (The others are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.) He rightly says, “there is experience, and then there are the stories we tell”. But he then goes on to assert: “these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies … altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms” (6). Harris values meditative states both as a practitioner and a neuroscientist. He describes Harding’s account of ‘Headlessness’ very respectfully as that of a “contemplative who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity”. But Harris will not entertain Harding’s further step. He dismisses the possibility that “a person can realize their identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos” as a New Age delusion. He shuts the subject down.

Harding and Harris would both claim the mantle of empiricism in their approach to spiritual inquiry. Both are willing to learn from ancient traditions, whilst seeking to update them with science based understandings and a scientific approach towards spiritual insight. But in each case there seems to be a point where they fail to recognize their own ‘story’ (in Harris’s case an anti-story) and fall all the more heavily into its trance. For me this perfectly illustrates the value of a more tentative, delicate empiricism to contemplative inquiry.

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: SPINNING IN PLACE

4163oG+V32L._AC_US160_Highly recommended: Spinning in Place is a clear and thought-provoking guide to the festival year from the perspective of a humanist/naturalist Pagan. Bart Everson describes it as not so much a ‘how to’ as a ‘why bother’ book, for “no-one can dictate what the festivals mean or how to observe them”.

What he offers is a narrative of how he works the widely adopted eight festival cycle in New Orleans, and “idiosyncratic encouragement” to “spin your own wheel”.  The reader he imagines is “an atheist, or perhaps a pantheist or an agnostic”, someone “without a strong belief in gods or supernatural powers”.  Yet, within this philosophical naturalism, he imagines also an interest in religion and spirituality – perhaps in the form of “being surprised by a sudden awakening” and entering upon “a quest for something more”. For me, it also has a value to anyone with an interest in the Wheel of the Year.

Everson makes two important points about the festivals in general. One is the sense of a holiday as more than a vacation – more than time off for relaxation and recreation, important though these are. A true holiday enshrines values, “reminding us again and again of certain existential truths”. Modern ‘Western’ style societies tend to be “mobile, rootless, divorced from the specific realities of a particular place … it’s my thought that if we spin in one spot for a while, dervish-like, perhaps we’ll corkscrew right down into the Earth and regain our sense of location.”

The second point to remember is that “seasonal variation happens according to its own schedule and not according to any calendar devised by humans.” When festivals become entrenched, “conventions have a tendency to become concretized in our minds, as if they were the primary reality rather than a convenient symbolic expression”. Everson invites an open and fresh approach to ritual celebration. This will of course include the repetition of loved and familiar patterns, but not imprisonment within them.

The book gives a chapter to each season, opening with December: Solstice Connections where the solstice is seen not as a Solar event (nothing happens to the sun) but an Earth-Solar event. Everson’s ritual year is about Earth and its cycles, celebrating an Earth spirituality. January/February: Searching the Depths remind us that there is no Nordic winter in New Orleans, and a Carnival season starting at Twelfth Night, with Mardi Gras any time from 3 February – 9 March. For Everson, it is the time for Candlemas and Brighid crosses. March: Spring in the Subtropics, Spring in the Self – and oak pollen on the porch a sure sign of the equinox. A theme of balance rather than excess: purification understood as “feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration”. April/May:  May Day x2 The Worker’s holiday matters as much as Beltane to Everson: celebration of revolutionary political desire, the notion of power to the imagination, the spiritual dimension of politics – “the sense of connection to Earth and humanity fuels outrage at manifest injustices”.

To begin the second half of the year we have June: Flowers to Flame, a time of sunshine and superabundance – yet at the same time, acknowledging limits set by nature. Flowers coming to full form, and flowers given over to the bonfire’s flames. Then comes July/August: How Lammas Changed my Life The warmth of the year has continued to increase. Everson remembers his first link to a local Pagan group, a Paganism for kids event to which he took his daughter. Making corn dollies. Still making them, and baking bread together. September: The Other Equinox is elusive as a season, though it is getting darker and it is the time of Lycoris radiata – naked ladies, red magic lilies, hurricane lilies locally. The hurricane season peaks on 10 September and goes on to 1 November. Themes of loss and darkness, yet also gratitude (rather than fear or denial). Making ‘gratitude garlands’, since gratitude is always for something and to someone. Finally, we have October/November: Dead Time where All Saints, All Souls and Dia de los Muertos are all celebrated locally. Everson talks both of celebrating ancestors’ night and what he calls “surfing the new spooky” – “there is something delectable about the spooky, something desirable, something necessary”.

Spinning in Place shows how to create a wheel of the year which honours tradition, place and personal history. This approach allows fluidity and responsiveness to environment, community and culture both past and present. It clearly works for Bart Everson. Spinning in Place does not offer an off the peg set of rituals. Rather, it asks readers to wonder what we might do, in our place, using our histories and our forms of expression. That’s what makes it inspiring.

 

Bart Everson Spinning in place: a secular humanist embraces the wheel of the year New Orleans, LA: Frowning Cat Books, 2016 (E-book available on Amazon Kindle)

 

 

NATURALLY INQUIRING

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 https://humanisticpaganism.com – 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:

 

INTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘I SPACE’

 

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

 

EXTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘IT SPACE’

 

Atoms, brains, bodies, behaviours, organism

Explored in natural science, scientific medicine, philosophy of science

 

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

 

INTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘WE SPACE’

 

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

EXTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘ITS’ SPACE

 

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 headless.org  – 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

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: GODLESS PAGANISM

Highly recommended. Godless Paganism: voices of Non-Theistic Pagans is the fruit of a substantial pioneering project. The book has 75 chapters, with only a small number of contributors writing more than one. The chapters are arranged in 10 themed sections, with a substantial introduction that surveys the territory as a whole. I think that anyone with an interest in modern Paganism could gain something from this book.

The book exists thanks to the efforts of John Halstead and colleagues at HumanisticPaganism.com. (I notice that, in the text, ‘Naturalistic Paganism’ seems to be the more favoured term). Money was raised by supporters and the book is published by Lulu.com.

Godless Paganism is fresh and alive, and introduces many voices – the voices people who are moving and changing, engaged in experiential exploration, open to new ways of sense-making. Culturally, it has as U.S. centre of gravity, though contributors from other parts of the world are included.

Some contributors report being challenged by fundamentalist Pagans over their right to call themselves Pagan, and this is presented as a problem emerging in the 21st. century rather than an inheritance from the 20th. This may help to explain why Godless Paganism has, for me, a remarkably deity-focused feel. Brendan Myers writes a chapter called The worship of the Gods in not what matters but the book has no overall sense of saying, ‘let’s base our spirituality on a different focus – our response to nature, perhaps, or to suffering’. Approaches like this are represented in the book, but it is more usual for contributors either to present reframed understandings of ‘deity’ and ‘belief’, or to celebrate the play of deity yoga without belief. All fine by me – yet this does suggest a concern with responding to perceived fundamentalist challenges rather than an actual departure from theistic language and theistic frames of reference.

Having said that, I strongly welcome Godless Paganism and what it represents. I hope that it strengthens the confidence and community standing of those who identify as ‘naturalistic Pagans’. I salute the people who have made this happen, and I look forward to future collections on this topic.

 

John Halstead (editor) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans Lulu.com 2016 (Foreword by Mark Green)