contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Ecology of Wisdom

BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM

“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.

The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.

On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.

After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.

I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.

(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020

(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/

(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/11/rainmaker/

RAINMAKER

The story of the Rainmaker, below, is from Hebridean ecologist Alastair McIntosh‘s Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. I will the review the book as a whole in a later post. The story was originally recounted by Richard Wilhelm in the early years of the twentieth century. Wilhelm was a long-term resident in China whose German translation of the I Ching included a foreword by C. G. Jung. McIntosh’s context for the story is a discussion of spiritual groundedness in the application of Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s way of peace and social transformation.

“In the province that surrounded Tsingtao there befell a terrible drought. The grass scorched, the animals were failing, and the people knew that they’d be next. In desperation, they called upon the Protestant missionaries, who came and presumably said their prayers and read their bibles and gave suitably long sermons. No rain.

“So then they called the Catholic missionaries, who came and presumably said Hail Marys and prayed with rosary beans and sprinkled holy water. Still no rain.

“So they called the traditional Taoist and Confucian priests, who came and lit some joss sticks, and set off guns to frighten away the hungry ghosts that presumably had caused the drought. But not a single drop.

“Finally – and interestingly, as the last resort – they called in the Rainmaker. The Rainmaker was a wizened little old man who lived far away. He had to walk a considerable distance from a neighbouring province. ‘What do you need?’ they asked when he arrived.

“’I need nothing,’ he said. ‘Just a hut to go and sit.’

“After three days, there was an unseasonable fall of snow. It melted and relieved the drought. The peasants soon resumed their normal lives. But Richard Wilhelm, being not just any old scholar but a German professor, wanted to know exactly what the little old man had done.

“‘I did nothing,’ said the Rainmaker.

“‘Oh come on,’ said Wilhelm. ‘Was it magic spells, or incantations, or did you just hit lucky that you only had to wait three days?’

“‘None of those,’ he sad honestly.

“‘Well, what was it then?’ demanded the exasperated Wilhelm.

“’It’s like this,’ said the Rainmaker. ‘When I was in my home province, my spirit was in the Tao, the cosmic harmony. But when I got to this province, I found that it no longer was in the Tao.

“’So I went and sat inside the hut, and when my spirit settled back into the Tao, that’s when the clouds began to form.’”

Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2020

THICH NHAT HANH ON LIVING BEINGS

In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.

“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.

There is vitality in everything.

The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.

“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)

  • To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

LUNAR WISDOM

” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.

“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.

“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.

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.

 

A PICTURE ON THE WALL

I imagine a fairly distant future. People are living underground or in domed settlements. The population, though nothing like today’s, is recovering. It is gaining in confidence and ambition. They hope that by continuing their own genetic modification, and terra-reforming the planet, they will be able to live outside again. They have museums, and the stretch of wall above is a prized artefact from a half-legendary pre-apocalyptic time.

What do observers make of it? What, if anything, do they know about birds? Can they name and recognise a ‘duck’ without expert input? If so, do they have any idea of why the representation on the wall is not entirely naturalistic? What about the conventions of thought bubbles and question marks? Would even the curators know about graffiti, and their role in late pre-apocalyptic culture? How do they stand with the notion of ‘humour’?

Conceivably, they know little about us and our intentions. The memory of us may be disturbing to them. This image may be seen as a riddle and a mystery – somewhat magical, somewhat uncanny. It may create a mixture of fascination and unease, ensuring its place as a guaranteed magnet for visitors.

What stories do our remote descendants tell, when contemplating this relic of the past? What, for them, does the picture on the wall say about us? Would we want to know?

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/

 

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