contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Existentialism

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/

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

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

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

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

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

(2) https://coiuk.org/

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

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I’ve been questing a name for my stance in the world. At this point in my journey, I can’t think of myself either as either a Druid or a Buddhist, despite the importance of these movements in my life. But to keep saying this is enervating and dis-empowering. I want a name, a positive name. I want it to affirm my current values with the creative focus of a new identification. I have ended with Existentialism – with the proviso that I need to customize my own 21st century version. Here’s how I reached this point.

First, I turned from the realms of spirituality and religion and looked to philosophy – specifically the Western tradition bearing that name, which means ‘love of wisdom’ (philo – sophia). This emerged over two and a half millennia ago in ancient Greece, where “philosophy was not, initially anyway, something to be studied in isolation by a group of specialists, but rather the expression of a way of life” (1). As such, it covered areas we still call by Greek names: therapeutics, ethics, aesthetics, politics. It asked basic questions that we face in our lives. It suggested physical and spiritual exercises and dietary regimes aimed at the good life. It included ‘natural philosophy’, the basis of our science. Over time, rival schools of philosophy sprang up – Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Cynic, Sceptic.

According to one of its champions, Existentialism is “arguably the only contemporary form of philosophy that remains true to the conception of philosophy first articulated” in ancient Greece (1). As a movement, Existentialism lasted for only a brief period in the mid twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre provided the name and was the only person who habitually used it of himself. Other people associated with the group were Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Only Merleau-Ponty was a full-time academic. The other Existentialists were better known for their involvement in politics and literature – fiction, drama, and journalism. Albert Camus said,” if you want to be a philosopher, write novels”.

The Existentialists were a diverse group with certain themes in common: living without God; freedom; others and otherness; anxiety; finitude; the absurd; authenticity; oppression. They struck a chord in an age of totalitarianism, world war, holocaust, nuclear warfare (actual and threatened) and anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Buddhism’s dukkha becomes Existentialism’s angst, here worn almost like a badge of honour, a price of the human condition. This condition is one of self-conscious awareness, simultaneously free and compelled to make choices without divine sanction, in the absence of any cosmic template or plan. Existence precedes essence: we must make ourselves.

Existentialism both looks back from this historical moment and points forward from it. The looking back is to the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Soren Kierkegaard came down in favour of religion out of loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence. For him, to ‘exist’ is to face the uncertainties of the world and commit oneself passionately to a way of life. Fyodor Dostoevsky is sometimes classed as another religious Existentialist in the way that he chose Russian Orthodoxy over Nihilism.

Moving into the 20th century, we find the development of ‘phenomenology’ as a scholarly attempt to learn from within the ‘life-world’, the subjective and inter-subjective realm, the insider’s view of existence, at a time when most academic endeavours adopted an objective, scientific, observer stance. Martin Heidegger, its best-known practitioner, is considered an Existentialist. The later French Existentialists drew inspiration from these earlier sources, but this didn’t involve taking on specific religious or political beliefs. They stood in a French republican tradition that was atheist and of the left.

Looking forward, Existentialism contributed to later Feminist and post-colonial perspectives. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was ground breaking in the 1950’s, whilst needing to be moved on from in subsequent decades. Existentialism has informed the politics of identity, though in itself also thought of as superseded by poststructuralist, postmodernist and other more recent currents. It appears to have done its job. But I’m not so sure. I was born during the heyday of French Existentialism. I am drawn to the term and I feel like taking this tradition and updating it for myself.

I thought of using the qualifier eco-existentialism, but the term is already used in eco-psychology and I have also spotted it in a business context, concerned with individual choice in creating sustainable households. I think I will stick with the single word Existentialist. It’s long enough. I want it to  incorporate practices of mindfulness and compassion and to be Earth centred. The Spell of the Sensuous (2) draws on Merleau-Ponty’s later work to demonstrate how an animist mindset makes sense: it is necessary to human perception even when apparently repressed and denied. Animist Existentialism? I believe that it is quite possible for me to live and affirm an Existentialism adjusted to 21st. century conditions and understandings. Names do matter to me, when I can mobilize around them. This one somehow makes me feel lighter and more resourceful. The magic of naming!

(1) Thomas E. Wartenburg Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide Oxford: Oneworld, 2008

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

I AND YOU

MBI and Thou was written by the Jewish scholar and theologian Martin Buber in the 1920’s and first translated into English in 1937. I’ve used a 1970 translation by Walter Kaufmann*, who prefers the term ‘I and You’ since ‘I and Thou’ sounds formal and churchy in modern English. The subject is ‘I-ness’ and the way it comes into existence only through alterity, though linkage to the other: for Buber this means other humans, other life in nature, and spiritual beings. Buber distinguishes two forms of such linkage: ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’. The second demands more of us – and it brings “the breath of eternal life” into the world. Buber makes this distinction very clearly in the passage below.

“The I of the basic word I-You is different from the basic word I-It.

“The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

“The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).

“Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

“Persons appear by entering into relation with other persons.

“One is the spiritual form of natural differentiation, the other that of natural association.

“The purpose of setting oneself apart is to experience and use, and the purpose of that is ‘living’ – which means dying one human life long.

“The purpose of relation is the relation itself – touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by the breath of eternal life.

“Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an actuality in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. Where there is self-appropriation, there is no actuality. The more directly the You is touched, the more perfect is the participation.

“The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.”

Buber has been described as a ‘religious existentialist’, though he personally didn’t like the term. Whilst willing to share with all, He was not a Universalist and always saw himself as speaking specifically out of his ancestral tradition. He also wrote Tales of the Hasidim about the intensely devotional form of mystical Judaism that first developed in Central and Eastern Europe and then found new homes elsewhere, especially in North America and the Holy Land itself.

*Martin Buber, I and Thou Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York City, NY, USA, 1970 (A translation with a Prologue I and You and notes, by William Kaufmann)

JOHN HERON AND ‘FOURTH WAVE’ HUMANISM

Western Humanism, in John Heron’s view, comes in waves. The first began in 5th century BC Greece, when the Sophists and Socrates “called philosophy down from heaven to earth” by introducing social, political and moral questions. The second began in the Italian Renaissance, which affirmed the worth and dignity of human achievement over against the Christian pre-occupation with sin. The third began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century and became the rational scientific, secular and atheistic humanism of modern times. For Heron, there has also been a fourth wave, distinct in many respects from the third, which began in the domain of humanistic psychology.

The two primary protagonists of humanistic psychology, which emerged in the USA in 1961, were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. At that time they were clearly aligned to the humanism of the third wave. Maslow was concerned to demonstrate that “spiritual values have naturalistic meaning; that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches; that they do not need supernatural concepts to justify them; that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science.” Rogers had a more experiential and phenomenological approach: “It is to experience that I must return again and again; to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my direct experience.”

Over time, both Maslow and Rogers shifted their views. Maslow and other colleagues like Stanislav Grof, became increasingly concerned that they had left out a ‘spiritual’ element within the human psyche and wanted a psychology “that would honour the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness”. So they invented a new discipline of ‘transpersonal psychology’ that over time came to be supported by existing, in some ways more traditional, psychological movements with a spiritual dimension – such as the successors of Carl Jung (including the archetypal psychology of James Hillman) and the psychosynthesis tradition initiated by Roberto Assagioli. Carl Rogers was slower to embrace spirituality within psychology and didn’t involve himself in the transpersonal movement. But towards the end of his life he spoke increasingly of presence, inner spirit and self-transcending relationship. “I find that when I am closest to my inner intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me then whatever I do seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. When I can be relaxed and close to the transcendental core of me it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger”.

John Heron draws on Rogers for his understanding of a fourth humanist wave. The core precept of fourth wave humanism concerns animation through reaching out and connection: an animism of process rather than ideology. It differs from the doctrinally naturalist view of the third wave by suggesting that our reality exists within a field of what might be called divine potential, or becoming: “the self-determining capacity of humans … presupposes a dynamic context of spiritual animation/inspiration [NB reminiscent of imbhas/awen in Druid tradition] in which persons can actively participate”. In Carl Rogers’ terms, inner spirit reaches out, touches the inner spirit of the other, thereby transcending itself and becoming part of something larger. In Heron’s language, spirit exists within us, between us (named by someone in one in one of his groups as “the band of golden silence”) and beyond us, where an ‘I am’ statement can bring us to a threshold “where personal consciousness is open to consciousness that is anywhere and everywhere”.

Fourth wave humanism, though grounded in human experience, moves on from the exclusivist human centric stance of the third wave. Spiritual animation occurs between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in that place, or between other kinds of beings independently of humans – the “deep resonance” between trees in the forest is one obvious example. Indeed, like the second wave humanism of the Renaissance, fourth wave humanism makes provision for (but does not insist on) an Otherworld within an extended view of nature/spirit/reality – one with denizens who may be available for animating connection. It is understood that different people – indeed beings – are gifted with different bandwidths of perception, which they will then give an account of in different ways in the light of both personal and cultural factors.

Fourth wave humanism has a strong view of personhood, but one with an alert sense of the tension between the individual and universal. “The spiritual animation between people appears to have a basic polarity, a radical and dynamic complementarity: there is the impulse to realize the individual distinctiveness of being and the impulse to realize interactive unity within wider fields of being … it is a subtle balance: too much individualism leads to egocentric narcissism; too much universalism leads to spiritual fascism, authoritarianism and oppression.” Sometimes, as an alternative to fourth wave humanism, Heron uses the term ‘participatory spirituality’ or a ‘participatory paradigm’ as his world view. This is supported by various co-operative endeavours involving a delicate dance of hierarchy, peer co-operation and personal autonomy and by the discipline of spiritual inquiry.

There is much more to be said, and Humanism: the fourth wave, can be found in full on http://www.human-inquiry.com/hum4.htm I spent many years teaching co-counselling, the peer and reciprocal support system at the heart of John Heron’s work, and also (against my career interests) undertook both Masters and Doctoral degrees using co-operative inquiry, his other major working method, as my methodology. So in a sense this kind of understanding is an embodied part of me – inevitably not in quite the way presented by John Heron himself. I don’t now use either co-counselling or co-operative inquiry as working practices. But I do see my current direction as one of synthesising the best of ‘fourth wave humanism’ with the best of modern Druidry: I discern fruitful synergies between them. My view and practice of Contemplative Druidry (both personal and group based) have already incorporated aspects of this approach. This can be taken further.  For me, embodied and lived ideas inform our stand in life and influence its effectiveness. They have consequences in the wider world.

BOOK REVIEW: WHEN A PAGAN PRAYS

jhp5322da8f27f31Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.

I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at least in part because of the author’s decision not to make retrospective changes to early chapters in which this “somewhat agnostic Druid took an academic interest in prayer” and had not yet found that this “wasn’t going to work”. The shift came when she began an experimental practice and stayed with it long enough for it to bear fruit. She was helped by Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of how prayer affects us: “when love and compassion are present in us, and we send those outwards, then that is truly prayer”. This allowed a move away from an originally limited framing of prayer as petitionary prayer to named Deity/Deities) into something more spacious and allowing. As a Druid, she was also partly influenced by the idea of kami – the spirits or phenomena revered in Japanese Shinto. As spirits of the elements in nature, or ancestors, or animals, creationary forces in the universe, part of nature and not separate from it, such beings seemed on a scale approachable through attunement, potentially available for conversation.

At night and on the edge of sleep, the author decided to see what happened when she opened her heart and sought peace with herself. She wasn’t seeking “grace or purity”, but “wholeness, wellness, connection”. Prayer became “an act of opening awareness”, of being open to the numinous, open to the divine. She stood before the unknown, holding her mind in a state of readiness, not expecting coherence, in a place that is perhaps beyond both doubt and belief. And she was thus willing, both to say “my prayer has had real and discernable effects for me” and that “this proves nothing”. In the end she says: “there are aspects of being that cannot be usefully discussed in terms of ‘realness’. That may be where the gods live”. A voice that at first has been buried, and then emerged in a hesitant way, can now celebrate re-connecting with the felt numinosity of early life, able to let go of the “defensive rationalism” that for a time played a necessary role.

The rational voice, the first voice, still has its place. This book isn’t all personal story. It considers the nature of prayer, the ethics of prayer, the social functions of prayer, and practicalities of prayer. It looks at the relationships between prayer and ritual, prayer and magic, and the idea of life itself as prayer if lived prayerfully. The author thinks through prayer as a concept (or set of related concepts), and its context, and how most effectively and ethically to pray. This voice too is an honest voice. It does not make assumptions, or hypnotise the reader into agreement. We are asked to think and reflect. In the end, the first voice becomes the servant of the second. It’s questioning both demands and enables the integrity of the author’s personal experiment in prayer. The resulting fruits of practice, and the conclusions of the book, are owed to the presence of both voices, and the author’s willingness to be loyal to them both through a time when they were as yet unreconciled.

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