In a recent post I wrote of John Heron’s proposed ‘4th wave humanism’, a humanism open to the numinous and welcoming of Mystery. This naming allows Heron say that two out of three previous humanist waves in Western culture (Greek classical and Italian renaissance) have already been like that, with the current post Enlightenment wave a bit of a cultural oddity.
One of the things I like about the approach is the idea that we may find the extra dimension – the one we vaguely, almost helplessly, call ‘spiritual’ – in three places: within, between and beyond. I’m relating this to practice, and how in my experience works for each domain.
I can speak of ‘within’ with the most confidence. I have a solo practice that works firstly as a therapeutic process: it supports and affirms personal wellbeing. It offers healing and deep peace. But these, although desirable as outcomes, and appreciated as rewards, are not the ultimate aims. Such states enable a sense of awarely being and loving, in gratitude for the gift of human life and also feeling held within a larger context. This doesn’t happen without times of self-alienation and their call to shadow work. But the tendency of practice is in the direction of opening up and opening out. The reflections that come from this are about integrity with self, others and the wider world, and how to live my active and relational life.
For the ‘between’ I can speak from the body of experience I’ve had, especially in the last couple of years, in groups working in contemplative Druidry. The groups are quite small and have a form of intimacy that comes from that. But the practices are not designed to create close personal relationships or an orchestrated group mind. We each have our own space in a setting where we also have a concern for each other and opportunities for personal sharing. The connection is a ‘between’ one, neither frozen by distance nor drowned in euphoria. It owes something to each person’s within, and to the growth of personal connection, but it’s at least as much present in the group atmosphere, the subtle presence of a ‘more-than’. This aspect of the group work has become clearer to me than it was during the writing of Contemplative Druidry.
So it’s my view that ‘within’ and ‘between’ can be cultivated quite effectively – not without ups and downs, but effectively all the same. My sense of the ‘beyond’ is a little different. Beyond is beyond and needs to stay wild. It is true that the Ceile De fonn ‘Sireadh Thall’ (Seek Beyond) names the search, the voyage towards an ever-receding horizon, as in-built in us – for some, a sign of our awakening divinity. But we also need to avoid the colonisation of the numinous and any compulsive holding on to visionary experiences. They are gifts – inspiring, nurturing and transient. Brendan Myers, in his The Earth, the Gods and the Soul, includes a telling paragraph from A. E.’s The Candle of Vision.
“Such is human nature that I still felt vanity as if the vision was mine, and I acted like one who comes across the treasure house of a king and spends the treasure as if it were their own. We may indeed have a personal wisdom, but spiritual vision is not to speak of as ours any more than we can say at the rising of the sun, ‘this glory is mine’. By the subtle uprising of such vanities in the midst of vison I was often outcast, and found myself in an instant like those warriors of Irish legend, who had come upon a lordly house and feasted there and slept, and when they awoke they were on the brown hill-side.”