contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Ethics of empathy

MY DRUID PRAYER

I am fond of the Druid prayer despite my discomfort with petitionary prayer as a genre. This post looks at the prayer and describes a recent reframing for solo use.

The prayer dates back to the eighteenth-century origins of modern Druidry. I first encountered it in 1993 on joining OBOD (1). The custom there is to extend the ‘Grant O God’ opening to include Goddess and Spirit as alternatives.

Grant O God/Goddess/Spirit, your protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of God/Goddess/Spirit and all goodness”.

When using the prayer in group settings I use Goddess as a Pagan statement in a world where most religious movements still lean heavily towards patriarchy. I have noticed that Goddess and Spirit tend to be the preferred options among Druids today, with at least a few people finding time to say God and Goddess. God by himself is somewhat out of fashion.

In most religious movements this petitionary pluralism would likely seem disconcerting, but it is one of the things that I have appreciated in OBOD and Druid culture more widely. At a deeper level, I am not at ease with prayers to higher powers however they are named. I do not find myself standing congruently behind them. I can stay in a gathering and participate, acknowledging the good intentions of the occasion, but I am not 100% there, in the moment of petition.

On the other hand I like the values expressed in the prayer, as it develops from its base-line in hoped-for protection into that quality of strength which leads on to understanding, knowledge, justice, and – through the love of justice – the love of all existences. Protection and strength, as values, are thereby dissociated from ideologies of dominance and submission, or of power-over as the answer to anxieties and problems. Instead, they point to something fuller, where strength becomes the basis for a generous stance in life. The prayer both affirms the web of life and promotes justice within the web. The principles of the prayer call strongly to our own time.

My recent work has made it possible for me to use the prayer in solo practice. The key word is the sense of ‘Oneness’ as an expression of universal interbeing, or connectedness, rather than a singularity or monad: a Oneness (which I am willing to capitalise) that can manifest in ‘no boundary’ experiences yet also has room for the arrival and passing of individuals, collectives and relationships.

I am aware that, within the web, we find built-in elements describable as parasitic and predatory. Sentient life is necessarily stressed. But as a human I can be aware of this and create, of my own volition and with the aid of allies and available cultural resources, a values-based response. For me, the recognition of ‘Oneness’, as I have described it, widens the circle of care. This recognition may begin as intuited or as conceptual. Either way, I find that it changes the breadth and depth of experience – its taste, texture, tone and colouration. The state of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ (2) points me to, and enables, the recognition Oneness in this sense. It opens the way to a form of the Druid prayer that I can fully embrace.

In the recognition of Oneness,

May I find protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of Oneness and all goodness.

In the light of recognition, the phrase ‘May I …’ asks me to take responsibility for my part in the Oneness. In one sense I am small and transient, in another sense timeless and unboundaried. There is something available beyond the little me, and I can affirm an intention in its name.

I notice that this approach to the prayer also reframes ‘goodness’. It loses any after echo of childhood obedience and a child’s hope of reward for being good. Indeed, it is not used here primarily as an ethical term – too vague, for one thing: ethical criteria need to be specified and their implications worked through, as in systems like virtue ethics or Buddhism’s eight-fold path. Although implying an ethics of empathy, this goodness is about flourishing at the personal, relational, collective and universal levels. The point of any ethics is to support this flourishing.

I will use and test this version of the prayer, as part of my inquiry, and see how it works as part of my practice.

(1) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids: http://www.druidry.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/08/10/at-homeness-revisited/

XR STORIES

This re-blog, from The Earthbound Report, presents three stories from the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in London. Written from an insider perspective, they illustrate the movement culture that XR seeks to model.

Three little XR stories you won’t read in the papers — The Earthbound Report

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.

I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.

In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.

I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

In his Reclaiming Civilization (1), modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers asks three questions: What is civilization? What is wrong with it? What should we do about it? As part of his work with the third question, he looks at ethics. He starts with the proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good. This proposition may seem simple and obvious, yet it has not been a reliable quality of ‘civilization’ as we know and have known it.

Myers goes on to describe virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a flourishing happy life, we need to install ways of understanding, responding to, and acting in the world that will tend to support it. These are the virtues. Through the process of identifying and working with virtues, we reach towards the person we want to be and the world we want to live in. Myers implies a necessary inner work, when he speaks of “the possibility of a greater depth of life-experience that can appear when I am willing to let go of my illusions, willing to risk harm and despair, in pursuit of a more honest relationship with reality” He then presents his own list, offering his virtues as ways of responding to three ‘immensities’: earth, interpersonal otherness, and solitude/death.

For earth, the virtues are “those ways of being in the world that enable you to look upon the earth, in all its beauty and danger yet feel no need to own it all, nor to destroy it … but to explore it, play with it, know it. Myers recommends “virtues of wonder: including imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, aesthetic taste, and curiosity”. He adds that this does not preclude practices such as farming but does call for them to be “conducted in careful (as in full-of-care), sustainable and co-operative ways”.

For interpersonal otherness, the virtues are “those ways of being that enable you to look upon your neighbor, however strange or different she may be, and feel no need to make her conform to your demands, nor a need to send her away (such as, to her death) … the virtues … enable you to see another earth, in a manner of speaking … your neighbor’s eyes are another way of looking upon the earth … you have another way of exploring it”. Here, Myers recommends “virtues of humanity” – care, courage, friendship, generosity and the “Seven Grandfathers of Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love and Respect”.

For “the immensity of solitude, and of death”, the virtues are qualities that contradict any need to avoid solitude and death at “any cost, however destructive to yourself and others”. These, for Myers, are “virtues of integrity: including reason, consistency, dignity, Socratic wisdom, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness, mercy, the will to establish a legacy, and the will to let go”.

When I reviewed Reclaiming Civilization last year (2) I knew that I would want to return to it and examine its ethical approach more closely. What I like about this approach is that it avoids both a ‘follow your bliss’ vagueness and a rigid prescriptive system. It fits very well with my sense of a Sophian Way. It suggests principles and a method and then challenges us to develop our own list. Here, we have an ethics that asks for close attention, questioning and (I would suggest) a continuous work of understanding our chosen ‘virtues’ and checking them out in practice. For me, the notion of a flourishing life for ourselves and others has to extend to the biosphere. A purely human approach no longer serves even we humans ourselves. I also like an approach that (without being partisan) has political implications. It is not just an ethics for private life. Myers provides a tool for living the ‘good life’, and perhaps, identifying possible contributions to reclaiming (and re-framing) ‘civilization’ – the central theme of Myers’ book and the context for his ethical discussion.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-recl…ing-civilization/ ‎

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

MAKING PERSONAL VOWS

On Monday I completed a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course (1). It was not strictly Buddhist, but the teachers and all the participants were sufficiently Buddhist influenced to have had existing experience of both of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices. At the same time I believe that the overall approach can offer something for anyone concerned with the issues addressed.

One of these is making and living with vows. In this context, we make the vows to ourselves and there are two key criteria. The first is that the vow anchors an intention, rather than operating as a binding contract. The second is that vows flow out of our core values. Hence, we need to get clear about these values before making any vows.

The process for checking core values is a simple one. Bringing warm-hearted awareness to ourselves and our experience, we imagine being near the end of our lives and looking back. We ask ourselves what has given us the deepest satisfaction, joy and contentment. What values did we embody that gave our life meaning? In other words, what core values were expressed in our lives? Possible examples given by the people who developed the MSC programme are: compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature.

Having done this, we select a core value that we would like to manifest for the rest of our lives and write it in the form of a vow. In the construction of the vow, ‘May I …’ language is recommended. This strengthens a kind of commitment which is about working towards, and deepening into, the expression of the core value, rather than getting tied up in a drama of binary obedience/disobedience.

When making my own vows, I found it good to remember that they are personal and not set in concrete. They can be further changed and developed – or even dropped, if they cease to sit well. They are tools rather than rules. With the two below, I found that care with language was key to the credibility of the vow. Worded to be both simple and demanding, such vows can allow for degrees of fulfilment, and provide a kind of coaching.

May I be loving and compassionate in my personal interactions

Mindful Self-Compassion begins with ‘self’ but doesn’t – and couldn’t meaningfully – stop there. One of its merits is to resource loving-kindness and compassion to others and in the wider world. It is a preventative measure against cold charity and compassion fatigue. In the context of this vow, loving-kindness and compassion are specific terms. Loving-kindness is a basic stance of positive regard, not necessarily fuelled by natural empathy or emotion beyond a basic inclination to warmth. Compassion is loving-kindness in a situation where the other person or being is suffering. MSC, and the wider culture of Buddhist lovingkindness, provide working methods that include being kind to ourselves when we struggle with the stance of loving-kindness and compassion towards others. In working with this vow, I am not dependent on factors like self-image or passing sentiment. I have practices to support me in making the vow meaningful.

May I experience abundance in simplicity

This vow depends on a dance between two qualities that might be thought of as pulling in opposite directions. To the extent I might experience a tension myself, I am challenged to develop my understanding both of ‘abundance’ and of ‘simplicity’. One synthesis, an important one, finds a path through living lightly on the Earth as a personal witness in the face of world-pillaging and climate crisis. There’s a set of lifestyle choices to be made here, finding riches within apparent frugality. But for immediate experience, I go straight to simplicity. By this I mean slowing down, and opening to the simple now. I immerse myself in the texture of what is abundantly here and freely given. I look out of my window at late summery yellow-green ivy … abundance-in-simplicity comes in and sits on my shoulders. The point of the vow is to remind me of the miracle of being alive and to open me more fully to the gift.

(1) https://centerformsc.org/

EMBRACING INTERBEING

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the trees to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can see that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter‘ with the verb ‘to be’, we have a new verb ‘inter-be’” (1).

Thich Nath Hanh extends his proposition to include sunshine, the logger, the saw mill, the bread sustaining the logger (thus also wheat) and the logger’s parents. We are there too, because the paper is part of our perception. In fact, “you cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is. … As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

I have embraced ‘interbeing’. It is the most accessible and elegant way I know of talking about non-duality: clear, workable and sensitized to an ethics of empathy. It leans into the affirmation of embodiment, of loving relationship with the Earth, and a willingness to be socially engaged. I prefer this account to ones that tend in the direction of ‘I am the One’ or union with the Divine. We each seek the language with the most resonance and integrity for ourselves, whilst also knowing that any language is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself.

For some time, I have been working towards a view like interbeing through my personal contemplative inquiry. My chapter in the compilation Pagan Planet is called Living presence in a field of living presence: practising contemplative Druidry (2). There I raise questions about paths that lack a felt sense of embodiment, inter-connectedness and inter-dependence even when they do valuably encourage agency, personal responsibility, self-cultivation and independence of mind.  I specifically note two apparently contrasting effects of meditation, beyond its being a “green anti-depressant”. The first is that it “makes me very aware of my fragility … and complete embeddedness in a web of interdependence, and the narrow limits of my usual consciousness and perception”. The second is to find myself almost melting “with love and gratitude for the miracle of being alive at all”, moved too “by the world’s seeming ability to be irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful (3)”.

I now have an outer court membership of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing and have recently begun attending a weekly meditation session with the local sangha. It seems like a good place to be. It continues, in a new setting, an aspect of what I have already been doing in my contemplative inquiry.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2009 (20th anniversary ed. Editor Peter Levitt)

(2) James Nichol Living presence in a field of living presence: practicing contemplative Druidry in Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, believing and belonging in the 21st century Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: Moon Books, 2016

(3) http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

ETHICS OF EMPATHY: IMMRAM

Ancient Gaelic culture had a tradition of the Imramm – well-described by Caitlin and John Matthews (1). Imramma are “voyage quests, whereby a hero is called to penetrate to the furthest west to find wisdom, healing or paradise. For the Celtic peoples, the lands westward over the Atlantic have ever been the regions of the Blessed Isles, the happy Otherworld from which faery visitants, empowering objects and supra-human wisdom derive. As with the Grail quest, the Imramma are found in both pre- and post-Christian traditions, testifying to their importance, which may have been remnants of a once-coherent ‘book of the dead’ teaching, preparing people for states of existence after death, similar to the Tibetan bardo wisdom”.

I have one which was presented to me as a voyage to discover heaven and hell. I do not know its date or precise origin. The monks – I think they were monks – sailed past many islands in their hard journey into the open sea, their craft small and vulnerable, the conditions variable and sometimes scary. Occasionally they were able to land and refresh themselves – without finding anything much beyond the means of continuing subsistence. Eventually they grew close to a relatively large and inhabited island. They couldn’t see it very well through the mist and rain, but they could hear the cries and shouts of a human-seeming population in distress. Getting closer the voyagers glimpsed large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the smell coming from these was succulent, not bad at all. Yet angry and emaciated figures were huddled around them – some were snarling, jostling and fighting; others were paralysed with despair and sunken into vacancy and helpless gibbering; yet others were just a little bit more solution focused (as we might now say) and caught up in their own private frustration about how to get food from the cauldrons into their mouths with the very long spoons provided. They were so caught up in this that none of them even noticed the travellers, who found it wisest to back away from this scene before they were discovered in ways that might turn ugly.

The voyage continued … and continued. Eventually, as the story goes, and on a brighter calmer morning, the monks found themselves approaching another island, with an uncanny resemblance to the first. Quite large, with similar human-seeming inhabitants and large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the same succulent smell. The beings gathered around them even wielded the same awkward, ungainly and very long spoons. The only difference, of course, in the whole scene, is that they were using these spoons to feed each other.

There are three things I particularly like about this story. One is that the ethics of empathy can grow in very pragmatic soil, the soil of enlightened self-interest, the soil of common sense. The turn to co-operation doesn’t have, in itself, to be especially high-minded. So in a way the ethics of empathy, in a fuller sense, can develop out of the experience of simple, practical co-operation. The second is that, although hell is all too easy to get into, it is also quite possible to get out of: no need to abandon hope. The third is that the Otherworld journey takes us straight back into the realm of everyday life and how we do it.

  1. Matthews, Caitlin and John (1994) The encyclopaedia of Celtic wisdom: the Celtic shaman’s sourcebook Shaftsbury, Dorset, UK: Element (also published by Element in Rockport, Massachusetts, USA and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)
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