contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Deep Ecology

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.

The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.

Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.

The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.

The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.

The third root question asks: can circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.

Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)

(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BOOK REVIEW: UNLIKELY ALLIANCES

Highly recommended. Unlikely Alliances (1) is set in the years 2029-2033, in a fictional town on England’s south coast. It offers a degree of hope about the climate crisis, presenting a positive response to its challenges at the global, national and, especially, local levels. Towards the close of the book, one of the characters reflects on a benign economic austerity that includes social justice: “limited food in the shops, clothes and shoes having to last many years, trips abroad requiring special license … but look around us, are we really worse off?” The answer is a qualified no, on the grounds that everyday life has become less constrained and less stressful, thanks to the choices that have been made.

Unlikely Alliances offers a gentle, compassionate and good-humoured lens on a subject that can seem grim and edgy. The title refers to the changing political, professional and above all personal relationships of people working on adaptation goals in their Bourne Valley community. They are from a wide variety of backgrounds, including local government, academia, trade unions, churches, the voluntary sector, management consultancy, the hospitality industry, sports organisations and farming. Unexpected synergies are generated. The novel shows how its band of protagonists find themselves, each other and a new sense of purpose in this work. As fiction, the book has the space to be about lives as well as issues. New culture, adapted to new times, is created in the lived experience of friendship, romance and community building.

The Climate Action Plan of a progressive coalition government provides a political framework, drawing on ideas from the US 1930’s New Deal and the UK reconstruction post World War 2. It is in power because of a wake-up call resulting from a huge inundation in the Netherlands and the presence of a large number of Dutch refugees in Britain – a disaster too close to ignore. For the first time since the mid twentieth century, serious wealth taxes are in place. Food and fuel are rationed: everyone gets at least something at an affordable price. There are new approaches to housing. A Civilian Community Service Corps provides training and jobs for the unemployed and a two-years national community service for school and college leavers.

In crisis conditions, this government is broadly popular. Even so, it is vulnerable to defections within its own Parliamentary ranks, the vigorous opposition of vested interests and those who speak for them, and the violence of militant climate denialists on the street. These struggles are not minimised, and they are vividly portrayed in the book. But most of the focus is on resource and resiliency building at the local and regional levels, and on the changes in the lives of the main characters, as they open up to each other’s influence and affection. It is their efforts that prevail, since they come to make practical sense to more and more people.

A brief review cannot do full justice to a book that deals with a civilisation at the edge, presented from a stance of generosity and warm commitment to human flourishing. Tony Emerson has long experience of working with environmental issues and is also an accomplished storyteller. I found Unlikely Alliances heartening and enjoyable to read, and a well-informed glimpse into a possible near future.

(1) Tony Emerson Unlikely Alliances https://FeedARead.com 2021 – e-book created by White Magic Studios – http://www.whitemagicstudios.co.uk 1922. Available on Amazon (UK and USA).

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

BOOK REVIEW: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY

Highly recommended. Beyond Sustainability – Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis – offers an insightful exploration of the changes we need to make at the personal and collective levels. It is part of Moon Books’ Earth Spirit series, and will be released on 28 April 2023.

Author Nimue Brown says that, “as a Druid, I’ve spent my adult life trying to live lightly. There is a great deal to learn about what is possible, and what’s effective, and this is always a work in progress and never as good as I want it to be. I feel very strongly about the need for real change and quietly rage about greenwashing and the ridiculousness of ‘offsetting’. Harm cannot be offset”.

The book is economical with words and rich in content. Its introduction reflects that “humans are increasingly a miserable species, caught in ways of behaving that give us very little and will cost us the earth”. Brown argues that it doesn’t have to be this way and in seven chapters she sketches out pathways to an alternative.

Chapter 1 – What Makes an Authentic Life?- advocates ‘conscious living’, in which we resist the pressure to “to construct our identities out of consuming products”. Instead, we are challenged to discover what inspires and uplifts us, and to build meaningful relationships, with creative and productive communities emancipated from the trance of consumerism.

Chapter 2 – Authenticity and the Unsustainable – explores the narratives that limit and distract us, the stresses of high speed living, the hunger for possessions and ‘experiences’, and the rise of debt culture.

Chapter 3 – Slow Life Sustainability – suggests that ‘life in the slow lane is gentler’. It includes sections on slow fashion, slow transport, slow food, and slow shopping.

Chapter 4 – Wealth in Relationships – looks at ways in which we can support and appreciate each other, and has specific sections on spiritual community, community action, privilege/prejudice and the power of sharing.

Chapter 5 – Creativity for All – emphasises that “being able to imagine is an essential skill for moving towards more sustainable ways of life”. We are nourished by our own creativity and each others.

Chapter 6 – Privilege, Poverty, Inclusion – looks at bigger picture political change, starting with the thought that “sustainability cannot be just a middle class hobby”. There are a lot of things you can’t do if you are poor; shaming and blaming poor people is cruel and useless. Redistribution of wealth is therefore an essential step towards greener living.

Chapter 7 – Political Changes – discusses specific measures such as right of repair, universal basic income, a four day working week, radical changes to agriculture, reducing waste, ‘stop making money out of money’, and not relying simply on changes in technology.

Beyond Sustainability is an informed and distinctive contribution to an increasingly important conversation. It deserves to be widely read and discussed. I suggest that readers of this blog make a note or add it to their lists.

(1) Nimue Brown Beyond Sustainability: Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis Winchester, UK & Washington, USA, 2023 (Part of the Earth Spirit series)

WISDOM AND NON-VIOLENCE

“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” – Alan Drengson’s introduction to Arne Naess’ Ecology of Wisdom (1).

Arne Naess (1912-2009) was chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway, before resigning to devote himself to environmental problems and pioneer the field of deep ecology. For him, philosophy is deep exploration of our whole lives and context, “in a loving pursuit of living wisely” (1). His book Scepticism (2), is focused on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last known known representative of a philosophy school founded by Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE). Pyrrho himself spent time with Jains (gymnosophists = naked philosophers) and, probably, Buddhists, on an extended visit to India, and was influenced by them.

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

In his account of the Jains, Philip Carr-Gomm (3), shows how they might have influenced Pyrrho. Jain ethics is grounded in three principles: ahimsa, aparigraha, and anekant. Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence. Aparigraha is the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition. Anekant is the doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism, or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as complementing and completing each other, with non-absolutism as the intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment. The Pyrrhonist tradition, and its influence on Naess, seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism with the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukkha (suffering or dis-ease).

The approach – which I sometimes lose sight of myself – allows me to avoid what the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor (4) calls “the language game ‘In Search of Truth'”, where “one is … 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 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’. (4)

I have written on this topic at earlier points in my inquiry*. I have come back to it now, because I want to refine my understanding of ‘peace’ as a quality of inquiry. The liturgy of my daily Druid practice asks for ‘peace throughout the world’. How might I better demonstrate peace in the inquiry process itself? Inquiry processes, and even contemplative spiritualities, can include their own kinds of dogmatism and aggression. I have work to do, wisdom work, hopefully gentle to self and others, in this domain.

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

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

(3) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

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

*See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/25/04/19/spiritual-truth-claims/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/03/05/19/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/11/06/19/greg-goode-and-joyful-irony/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/19/01/20/scepticism-openness-and-flow/

REBLOG: ’10 THINGS I LEARNED FROM EATING VEGAN FOR A YEAR’

I’ve been ‘plant-based’ or ‘mostly vegan’ for several years now, since coming to understand the role of livestock on the climate. But towards the end of 2020, my son asked if he could be properly vegan. I joined him and we have done it together. I haven’t mentioned this before on the blog. I see […]

10 things I learned from eating vegan for a year — The Earthbound Report

THE COMING OF AUTUMN

Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.

The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.

Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?

I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.

BOOK REVIEW: LETTING GO OF NOTHING

A compassionate and discerning book, drawing on a wealth of experience and understanding. Highly recommended. Peter Russell sets the note of Letting Go of Nothing (1) with the sentence: “The call to let go lies at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions”. He adds, “Not being attached to outcomes, surrendering desires, accepting the present, opening to a higher power, relinquishing the ego, practising forgiveness – all entail letting go”.

The book is arranged as a series of brief, accessible sections exploring different aspects of the theme. Letting go takes many forms, depending on context. Here, Russell is not primarily concerned with letting go of things, like books, houses, jobs or the grid. His focus is on letting go of fixed beliefs and being right; immutable perspectives on the past or inflexible expectations of the future; the mental/emotional weight of judgements and grievances; disabling attachment to toxic or lost relationships. “We are not letting go of things themselves as much as the way we see them. Hence the title of this book: Letting Go of Nothing. Or, as I sometimes like to put it, ‘Letting Go of No-Thing’.”

Some of the 41 sections that follow are autobiographical. A Change of Mind recalls how a change in perception made space for a change of heart in a close personal relationship. Some are more about method – Letting In and Letting Be deconstruct the widespread notion that letting go of something necessarily means getting rid of it. If we are holding on to a grievance, for example, we are advised to let the experience in and become more aware of its discomforts. Pain, including emotional pain, evolved to let us know that something is wrong. It needs our attention. There are times for ignoring it, but this is not sustainable as our only response.

What we can do is learn to distinguish pain from suffering. Much suffering stems from aversion to pain (physical, mental, emotional), creating a surplus layer of discomfort. To a greater or lesser extent, we can disperse this added level of stress and tension. The work is subtle. It includes a level of not resisting resistance itself, and always finding spaces and possibilities for a degree of inner peace and freedom. Peter Russell is not in the business of sudden transformational release, although this too is possible. His way has more to do with skilful, compassionate engagement with the stream of experience as it happens. It is the work of a lifetime. Sections on Letting Go of Feelings, Letting Go of Story, The Root of Suffering and Fall from Grace explore his core philosophy in more depth.

Some of the sections set out liberating values – Forgiveness, Kindness, Wisdom. Others describe spiritual principles and practices – Sat-Chit-Ananda, Reframing Enlightenment, The Path of No Path. Russell is committed to an understanding of the world that summons us to ‘the deep peace of our true nature’. Matthew Fox (2), in a review, sees a social-ecological dimension in this work. For him, Letting Go of Nothing is an affirmation that our species can “wake up to down-to-earth spiritual wisdom that all our religions, when healthy, call us to – keeping it simple, understandable, and effective so that we and the sacred planet we share might become sustainable once more”. This simple book offers guidance at many levels.

(1) Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature Novato, CA: New World Library, 2021 (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)

(2) Matthew Fox is the author of Creation Spirituality and Original Blessing. His championship of an earth inclusive spirituality and his denial of original sin led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and move into the Episcopalian communion. His most recent book is Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/08/19/the-support-of-nature/

BLUE SKY, CLIMATE CRISIS AND DRUID PRAYER

I love the sky in most weathers. I especially love it when it is azure blue and feels like a high domed roof, well able to contain the movement of wispy, shapeshifting clouds. The sky is part of nature, just like the earth. It is not a detached, alienated realm, beyond the influence of what some traditions might call our little life.

Sometimes I wish it was beyond our influence, as the news about the climate crisis goes on getting worse. The moment of joy is infused with a heartache that has every right to be there. It reminds me of our interconnectedness, and the Druid prayer for knowledge and love of justice, and, through that, the love of all existences (1).

I will stay open to my simple joy at inhabiting a living world of beauty and abundance, even if sadness keeps it company. The healing pleasure of sky-gazing is a part a long, common inheritance, not to be repressed, numbed or lost. I will continue to invite it in and let it nourish me.

(1) One modest practical way to enact the love of justice and of all existences, beyond lifestyle adjustments, is to support https://www.stopecocide.earth/ – now gaining momentum.

BOOK REVIEW: SACRED ACTIONS

Highly recommended. Sacred Actions* is an excellent resource for developing sacred relationship with the earth in dedicated spiritual practice and acts of daily life. Pennsylvania-based author Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the U.S. homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen Within in 2018. In a recent blog post in Druid’s Garden (https://druidgarden.wordpress.com) she describes Sacred Actions as presenting “a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainability and permaculture practice”.

The book is built around the wheel of the year and its eight festivals. O’Driscoll begins with the Winter Solstice, where her theme is the ethics of care applied at both the private and public levels. New life practices are supported by specific exercises and rituals. She continues the same approach with the other festivals: Imbolc – “wisdom through oak knowledge and re-skilling”; Spring Equinox – “spring cleaning and disposing of the disposable mindset”; Beltane – “sacred action in our homes”; Summer Solstice – “food and nourishment”; Lughnasadh – “landscapes, gardens and lawn liberation”; Fall Equinox = “earth ambassadorship, community and broader work in the world”; Samhain – “sustainable ritual tools, items and objects”.

To prospective readers I suggest an initial reading, followed by more intensive engagement with the individual chapters, season by season. Use this text to identify what inspires and moves you and has the power to bring a richer sense of ‘sacred actions’ into your own life. Sacred Actions is a powerful source of ecological and ethical inspiration, and a fine addition to Druid literature.

* Dana O’Driscoll Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices Altglen, PA: Red Feather, 2021

 

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