contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Humanism

POEM: A PILLOW BOOK

The wisdom of diffident humanism. Spontaneity, immersion-in-the-moment and dissolved boundaries aren’t everything. Our narrative natures may be present, self-conscious and hyper-sensitive as we negotiate connection between self and other.  In my world this too has integrity, beauty, and tenderness.

I lie in bed, watching you

Dress yourself in nudity

For your part in a story

You are about to tell me.

Once upon a time, you seem to say,

There was a woman who took off all her clothes

And stood for a moment

With one hand on her hip.

You have my full attention

As you pile your hair on top of your head

And let it fall down again.

Up to this point I am familiar with the story.

Your movements suggest a possible outline,

But nothing is certain yet.

You lift your arms above your head

In a gesture of boredom or surrender.

Your hands touch in mid-air

And you turn them palm-side out

In a kind of question mark,

As you ask for help with the ending.

Hugo Williams, West End Final London: Faber & Faber, 2009. The publisher’s blurb describes this collection as a set of “sardonic investigations into the fault line between voice and projection”.

WITHIN, BETWEEN, BEYOND

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.”

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

“THE WORSHIP OF THE GODS IS NOT WHAT MATTERS” BY BRENDAN MYERS

I’ve been writing this week about the possibilities of a non-theistic approach to contemplative druidry, and potential synergies between druidry and forms of humanism. So I’ve enjoyed coming across ventures into similar territory by Brendan Myers, the Canadian philosopher, pagan and druid.

Naturalistic Paganism

“The sacred, I shall say, is that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” —Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear

I don’t normally see omens or other messages from the gods in the way many other pagans say they do. I’m not especially interested in ritual or magic or spellcraft. I do not sense auras, I do not feel the energies, I do not read tarot cards or cast the runes. In fact, around ten years ago or so, I hit upon one of the most liberating and life-changing propositions ever to have entered my mind, which is that the worship of the gods is not what matters. What, then, am I still doing in the pagan community? And if the worship of the gods isn’t what matters, then what does?

People…

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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.

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