contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Deep Ecology

ANIMISM IS A HARD-WORKING WORD

Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.

Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.

The Handbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.

So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.

  • Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

DAVID ABRAM: RECIPROCITY

“Wander over to that oak, or a maple, or a sycamore, reach out your hand to feel the surface of a single many-pointed leaf between your thumb and fingers. Note the coolness of that leaf against your skin, the veined texture your fingertips discover as they roam across it. But notice, too, another slightly different sensation: that you are also being touched by the tree. That the leaf itself is gently exploring your fingers, its pores sampling the chemistry of your skin, feeling the smooth and bulging texture of your thumb even as the thumb moves upon it.

“As soon as we notice than our hands are being included within the tactile world, we are forced to notice this reciprocity: whenever we touch any entity, we are also being touched by that entity.

…..

“Such reciprocity is the very structure of perception. We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain.”

David Abram Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology New York: Vintage Books, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: GREENING THE PARANORMAL

I recommend this book to anyone concerned with deep ecology, animism, or the kinds of phenomena we describe as ‘paranormal’. It opens with two substantial framing pieces, a foreword by Paul Devereux and an introductory chapter by editor Jack Hunter. These are followed by 16 chapters from a diverse range of contributors, mostly seeking to combine direct witness with a workable form of academic analysis. To an extent this book is a story of how to face this difficult challenge. Very early, in his foreword, Paul Devereux shows how the challenge can come from the ‘phenomena’ themselves.

“We were trying to geographically map generations of old accounts of fairy paths we had uncovered in the verbatim records of University College Dublin. Suddenly, standing in the grass, there was a figure, between two and three feet tall. It was anthropomorphic and fully three dimensional (as we could clearly determine while we were drifting slowly past. It had sprung its appearance out of nowhere, and it caught my wife’s and my own transfixed attentions simultaneously.

The figure was comprised of a jumble of very dark green tones, as if composed of a tight dense tangle of foliage rather like the stand of woodland a hundred yards or so beyond the sward of grass. It didn’t seem to quite have a face, just a head with deep set eyes appearing out of the green tangle. It presented a distinctly forbidding appearance. As we crawled past in our car, the figure started to turn its head in our direction, but then vanish.

“Charla called out, ‘Oh, shit!’ We looked at each other, both of us wide-eyed and thoroughly disconcerted. ‘You saw that!’ I asked rhetorically. The whole episode had lasted for only about half a minute or so, but it was unequivocally an actual. if transient, objective observation.”

The running inquiry question throughout the book is, what do we make of experiences like this, if we are determined to honour rather than dismiss them? Devereux senses four major themes in the suggested ‘greening of the paranormal’ in our time. The first is animism, the ‘Big Step for our culture to take’: the sense that the elements of the non-human world are animate in some way – rocks, rivers, soil, as well as plants and living organisms. This involves a deep relationship with the land beyond utility and subsistence. The second theme is the vision quest, a wilderness journey which is more about paying attention and being open to what unfolds, rather than posing questions. The third concerns the ‘liminal’ places that seem to support our breaking through into other-world realms or altered mind states. The fourth is inter-species communion with the animal and plant kingdoms. In the language used by Jack Hunter, we find ourselves dealing with a “profoundly mindful, sentient and agentic world” and the potential re-opening of lost forms of communication and connection.

Many of the contributors believe that we are unlikely to get through the climate crisis if we continue to ignore dimensions of experience from which our cultural filters have exiled us. Some of them live or work in countries that have been colonised by Europeans, but where pockets of traditional indigenous wisdom remain. They recognise that in some cases there are invitations to share in this. There are also concerns about appropriation and the dynamics of the researcher/subject relationship. There is a questioning of the word ‘shamanism’ as currently used – and arguably over-extended and suspect.

This book does not read like a novel. Although I have read it all, there were two or three chapters which didn’t speak to me. Others were riveting. I see it as an excellent book to own and keep for reference. The foreword and first chapter each stand alone and I recommend reading both of them. The other chapters can be cherry picked according to taste or need. Overall there’s a strong invitation to wake up to the aspects of world, life and experience that are being pointed to. The book suggests that they are needed for our personal, social and global healing.

 

SACRED SOUNDSCAPES

“Concepts of animism can take many forms. … The idea of the land being capable of speaking to humans was probably widespread in ancient sensibility. Sacred soundscapes were simply a natural corollary.

“The basic notion of the land having speech, or being read like a text, was lodged deeply in some schools of Japanese Buddhism – in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kukei, for instance. He likened the natural landscape around the Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kukei considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. Like the Buddha mind, the landscape spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse: ‘Thus, waves, pebble, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,’ explains Allan Grapard (1994).

” …. ….

“Throat singers in Tuvan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, developed their vocal art originally as a means of communicating with their natural environment, not for entertainment. Throat singing involves the production of resonant sounds, overtones and whistles within the throat, nasal cavities, mouth and lips, and was used to provoke echoes or imitate natural sounds like waterfalls or wind. The master throat singers can select precise locations inside caves where the resonances are exactly right to maximise the reverberations of their songs. They even wait until atmospheric conditions are perfect for the greatest effect. It is in essence a technology of echoes. At one locale, where a singer called Kaigal-ool performed in front of a cliff face, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin reported that ‘the cliff and surrounding features sing back to the musician in what Kaigal-ool calls a kind of meditation, a conversation I have with nature‘ (Levin & Suzukei, 2006).

“It is only in our modern culture that we have stopped listening to the land within a spiritual context. If we could fashion a modern, suitably culturally-ingrained animistic model, we would treat the environment with much more respect.”

Paul Devereux, in his Foreword to Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience August Night Press, 2019. Edited by Jack Hunter. See: http://www.augustnightpress.com

BOOK REVIEW: DRUIDRY AND THE FUTURE

Highly recommended. Druidry and the Future is intended as “antidote to despair” according to author Nimue Brown. She continues:

Druidry & Future 51hWUITk4HL._AC_UY218_ML3_

“This book explores the many ways in which the Druid path can help us to respond to climate chaos, necessary cultural change and political uncertainty. By mixing the spiritual and practical we can be more resilient and resourceful, and aspire to live in regenerative and generous ways.”

An affordably priced and relatively slender volume, Druidry and the Future is full of ideas. It is built around 16 essays covering diverse topics: working with Pagan stories: seasonal living: bardic powers; ‘pragmatic’ animism; working with the elements (three essays); de-colonising your soul; your body is nature; justice and balance; honouring the divine through action; putting ourselves back in the landscape; community solutions; self-care and kindness; trees and wetlands; regeneration and restoration. For me, there is a single overarching theme: enlisting the resources of modern Druid culture to build resilience in the face of climate catastrophe. This resilience includes personal and collective aspects, where humans and their communities are understood as wholly embedded in the wider web of life.

Nimue Brown is clear that “it is not enough to be sustainable”. The crisis invites, or rather requires, a radical change in values and behaviour. Human civilization is ‘just people’ and we have the capacity to live differently. For her, “this is what Druidry means right now. It’s about answering the question of how to put civilization in balance with our living planet. This is Druidry for radical change and I think we’re well placed to take on this work and to inspire others. Philosophy has always been part of Druidry, so has teaching and communication, inspiration and vision. We can, and must make a difference.”

BOOK REVIEW: THIS IS NOT A DRILL, AN EXTINCTION REBELLION HANDBOOK

This post re-blogs a review from The Earthbound Report, where the book is is described and highly recommended by a reviewer currently setting up a local XR group.

It was due in September, but the publisher has taken an ’emergency’ approach to getting the Extinction Rebellion handbook ready. How much of that is a marketing opportunity I really couldn’t say, but it’s welcome and useful. (And I love the subversion of Penguin’s logo on the front cover.) I’m in the middle of helping […]

via Book review: This is Not a Drill, an Extinction Rebellion Handbook — The Earthbound Report

ARNE NAESS AS PHILOSOPHICAL VAGABOND

“Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy in its original sense as being a loving pursuit of wisdom. It is a deep exploration of our whole lives and context in pursuit of living wisely. The essence of Socratic inquiry is to know ourselves. From his work on Pyrrhonian scepticism to his … positive statements on pluralism and possibilism, Naess says he is a ‘philosophical vagabond’ or ‘wandering seeker’, what the ancient Greeks called a zetetic’” (1).

In 1968 Arne Naess (1912-2009) published Scepticism (2) two years before resigning as chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo to devote himself to environmental problems. Part of this book focuses on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last recorded Pyrrhonist philosopher in a line going back to Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE).

Pyrrhonists, as described by Sextus Empiricus, neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. As Naess says, the Pyrrhonist philosopher “leaves questions open, but without leaving the question. He has however given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came by peace of mind in another way.” (2)

Naess was not himself a Pyrrhonist, but clearly valued the Pyrrhonist frame of mind. He took something from it into his later work, as is made clear in Alan Drengson’s introduction to Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom (1):

“… there is never one definitive interpretation of philosophical texts; there is never one description of an event and all processes are complex interactions involving changing forces and relations, internal and external. Experience and the processes around us form changing patterns or gestalts. The nature of reality is multidimensional and creative. … Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music or art … As a deep questioner and seeker, Naess remains free of dogmatic and monolithic doctrine about the world … [which]  partly explains why he celebrates a movement supported by diverse people with many world views”.

I enjoy this view of inquiry, and feel inspired to carry it forward more consciously in my own work. My sense is that it will bring my inquiry more into the world, without its losing its contemplative core.

(1) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(2) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1968

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/

 

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/

 

 

 

 

 

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

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