contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Interbeing

A DIRECTION FOR 2023

I am writing on the last day of 2022. My very best wishes for 2023 to all readers. Many blessings for the year ahead!

The picture above was taken on 26 December (in England called Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day) – this year a chilly day of bright blue sky. The truncated spire* of St. Nicholas Church, Gloucester, reaches up towards the vivid sky, despite its history of damage. For me, this image of spire against sky is one of clarity, definition and spaciousness. It is a breath of fresh air.

I don’t know what 2023 will bring. I do want to bring clarity, definition and spaciousness to whatever unfolds. As my contemplative inquiry continues, I find that it subtly modifies its purpose. Discovering and re-discovering the purpose involves an element of divination, since my thinking personality is not exactly in charge.

It is as if authentic clarity and definition come out of the spaciousness itself, not out of cognitive review or ‘brain-storming’. These may be aids, but I have also to wait for signs. When I began this blog, I surprised myself by calling it ‘contemplative inquiry’ rather the ‘contemplative Druidry’. I see now that contemplative inquiry is the root description for my path.

For me, contemplation is a yin quality, an open and receptive engagement with experiences – most especially, with forms of relationship. Inquiry is a yang quality, actively deepening knowledge, refining understanding and seeking meaning. Together they support my path. Druidry is a vehicle that supports spiritual self-direction, and also challenges disastrous social norms concerning both nature and culture. Today I have revised the ABOUT section of this blog, on the eve of 2023, and my key statements are below:

“My contemplative inquiry began in 2012. It is grounded in modern Druidry, though not wholly defined by it. I acknowledge the influence of other sources, especially the wider turn towards an eco-spirituality that meets our historical moment. The inquiry process itself is my core practice, from which others radiate out.

“Over my inquiry years, I have found an underlying peace and at-homeness at the heart of experience. Here, it is as if I am resourced by a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. I find myself guided towards a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

*NOTE ON ST. NICHOLAS’ SPIRE: the church was first built in 1190 and added to over the centuries. A 200 ft. spire was built in the fifteenth century, but received a direct hit from cannon fire in 1643, during the English Civil War. The final repair waited until 1783, when the spire was reduced in height and capped.

MIDWINTER CONTEMPLATION 2022

The picture above, taken in the mid-afternoon of the recent Winter Solstice, shows a local water meadow after heavy rain. My eyes are drawn downwards, to the reflections in the water and beyond. But height is there too, with trees and an early sunset sky. All with a sense of stillness. I felt in touch with the unknown within and beyond me, and open to the world.

Earlier in the day I had already been profoundly moved by the live-streamed funeral of John Heron, an elder for me in the field of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and also in what he called ‘participatory spirituality’. This describes a ‘spiritual animation’ that occurs ‘between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in place’. He saw this as a spiritual inquiry process, largely outside the traditions.

Over the last several days, I have been contemplating words, not by John himself but by Carl Rogers, the originator of person-centred counselling, about this kind of openness and its power. He wrote them in continuous prose, but I have re-arranged the spacing to help with my contemplative process. I find that they help me to better understand both my failures and my successes. They are a kind of direction for me. Although they are about being with people, they have become linked also with this landscape, because of the openness I felt there, in this liminal space.

“I find that

when I am closest to my 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 a part of something larger.”

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.

The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.

Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.

The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.

The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.

The third root question asks: can the circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.

Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)

(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

“Over the last twelve years I have walked every trail, every hillcrest, every stream-edge within a two hour walking radius of my house: everything between Lac-Des-Fees and Pink Lake, and a little beyond. …. I still encounter things I never saw before. Last year I saw a Great Horned Owl in the park for the first time. Its swift yet stately flight above my head caught my eye; a dark shadow in front of the sun, silent, and powerful in its silence.

“It rested on a tree branch not more than twenty meters away, and regarded me. I regarded him in turn. I had known for years that there are owls in the area: I’ve heard their hooting, and seen their pellets on the ground. But until that day and for ten years, I hadn’t seen one here before. Further, and I think more importantly, since I had entered the forest that day for no particular purpose but to enjoy a warm afternoon, to reaffirm my love of for the park’s landmarks and vistas, and to experience a few hours of pure human freedom, in simpler words to play, the encounter with the owl could take on a magical meaning.

“In the light of such magic, what a magnificent animal he was! How proud he seemed, as though in charge of the world, as though I required his permission to take another step. How unpretentious too: this owl had no need to pretend to be something he was not. The size of his claws, the laser-focus of his eyes meeting mine, was proof enough that he was a predator. No need to flex his weapons or brandish them. And what a delightful conversation we might have, if he were to speak. How much he could tell of the places he had seen, the adventures he had while hunting, and the pleasure of flight… Much as I would have loved to stay and hear him speak, I decided to move on after a few minutes. I did not know whether meeting his eyes might be provocative. And much as I might enjoy telling the story of how I got owl-claw scars on my face, I would certainly not enjoy getting them.

“…. Such is the magic of the forest. It can mean what you want it to mean under the aspect of play, yet at the same time it can surprise, and threaten and reveal itself, in ways no human artifact can do. It can suggest a kind of magic no human artifact can adopt: the dramatic discovery of a world not made by human hands. Thus it participates in the play, bringing its own contribution to the emergence of meaning.” (1)

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis London UK & Washington USA: Moon Books (Earth Spirit Series)

NOTE: Brendan Myers is a Canadian philosopher and author currently living in Quebec, where he teaches philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau. He has written extensively on Pagan themes from a philosophical perspective, and his most recent book takes them further through an exploration of the climate crisis. I will review the book in my next post.

A CONTEMPLATIVE PERSPECTIVE ON WISDOM

For me, wisdom can take many forms. Below, Eckhardt Tolle emphasises contemplative process over cognitive product. I don’t treat this as an exclusive definition of the word wisdom. But I have certainly been nourished by taking Tolle’s understanding to heart and learning how to let the process unfold.

“Wisdom is not a product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with this comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation.” (1)

(1) Eckhardt Tolle Stillness Speaks Vancouver, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2003

BOOK REVIEW: UNLIKELY ALLIANCES

Highly recommended. Unlikely Alliances (1) is set in the years 2029-2033, in a fictional town on England’s south coast. It offers a degree of hope about the climate crisis, presenting a positive response to its challenges at the global, national and, especially, local levels. Towards the close of the book, one of the characters reflects on a benign economic austerity that includes social justice: “limited food in the shops, clothes and shoes having to last many years, trips abroad requiring special license … but look around us, are we really worse off?” The answer is a qualified no, on the grounds that everyday life has become less constrained and less stressful, thanks to the choices that have been made.

Unlikely Alliances offers a gentle, compassionate and good-humoured lens on a subject that can seem grim and edgy. The title refers to the changing political, professional and above all personal relationships of people working on adaptation goals in their Bourne Valley community. They are from a wide variety of backgrounds, including local government, academia, trade unions, churches, the voluntary sector, management consultancy, the hospitality industry, sports organisations and farming. Unexpected synergies are generated. The novel shows how its band of protagonists find themselves, each other and a new sense of purpose in this work. As fiction, the book has the space to be about lives as well as issues. New culture, adapted to new times, is created in the lived experience of friendship, romance and community building.

The Climate Action Plan of a progressive coalition government provides a political framework, drawing on ideas from the US 1930’s New Deal and the UK reconstruction post World War 2. It is in power because of a wake-up call resulting from a huge inundation in the Netherlands and the presence of a large number of Dutch refugees in Britain – a disaster too close to ignore. For the first time since the mid twentieth century, serious wealth taxes are in place. Food and fuel are rationed: everyone gets at least something at an affordable price. There are new approaches to housing. A Civilian Community Service Corps provides training and jobs for the unemployed and a two-years national community service for school and college leavers.

In crisis conditions, this government is broadly popular. Even so, it is vulnerable to defections within its own Parliamentary ranks, the vigorous opposition of vested interests and those who speak for them, and the violence of militant climate denialists on the street. These struggles are not minimised, and they are vividly portrayed in the book. But most of the focus is on resource and resiliency building at the local and regional levels, and on the changes in the lives of the main characters, as they open up to each other’s influence and affection. It is their efforts that prevail, since they come to make practical sense to more and more people.

A brief review cannot do full justice to a book that deals with a civilisation at the edge, presented from a stance of generosity and warm commitment to human flourishing. Tony Emerson has long experience of working with environmental issues and is also an accomplished storyteller. I found Unlikely Alliances heartening and enjoyable to read, and a well-informed glimpse into a possible near future.

(1) Tony Emerson Unlikely Alliances https://FeedARead.com 2021 – e-book created by White Magic Studios – http://www.whitemagicstudios.co.uk 1922. Available on Amazon (UK and USA).

STOPPING FOR THE ANCESTORS

“I remember one morning contemplating a mountain in the early light of dawn. I saw very clearly that not only was I looking at the mountain, but all my ancestors in me were looking at the mountain as well.

“As dawn broke over the mountain peak we admired its beauty together. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We were free. We needed only to sit there and enjoy the sunrise. Or ancestors may never have had the chance to sit quietly, peacefully, and enjoy the sunrise like that.

“When we can stop the running, all our ancestors can stop at the same time. With the energy of mindfulness and awakening, we can stop on behalf of all our ancestors. It is not the stopping of a separate self alone, but of a whole lineage. As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace.” (1)

When Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story, he shows us ‘mindfulness’ as an art of living. He stops, looks at a mountain at dawn. His contemplation becomes a relationship, and the relationship is extended to the ancestors. For him, mindfulness sits together with interbeing, his word for interconnectedness. It is not a personal accomplishment, but the portal to an expanded, more inclusive, experience of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a great advocate and teacher of formal sitting meditation. But he didn’t fetishise it. The Mahayana Buddhist world view, and particularly its ethics, mattered more. I once heard a senior Vietnamese follower (also a psychiatrist) say that she was cautious about teaching meditation in Vietnam. She said that even in the 21st century, decades after the Japanese, French, American and Chinese wars, with elements of civil war thrown in, many people in Vietnam are too traumatised to benefit from meditation. What works best is participation in the Buddhist community and its ceremonial life, in a spirit of generosity and compassion. Mindfulness is essentially a value, not a contemplative technique.

I stop for my own ancestors, of both blood and other inheritances. I become aware of holding them in my heart. I let them in as I let in the world around me, and I experience that world with them and for them. We share a brief period of deep peace, and then let it go. For me, it feels mindful, Druidic, and very natural. Something to return to, whenever the moment feels right.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017 (Rider is an imprint of Penguin Random House UK)

WATER MEADOW WALK

A water meadow during a dry spell. A secluded space on the fringe of the old city. Luckily for its own life, it facilitates the management of flooding. This space is available to the public, and on this walk it seems less frequented than I would have expected. It is not grandly wild, but feels different from anywhere else I have discovered in easy walking distance from my home. I like its flatness, its greenness, and its openness to the sky.

I walk here in the early evening, grateful for the path, challenging the pollen to do its worst. Lifelong hay fever has made me less of a nature boy than I might have been, certainly at this time of year. But I don’t like feeling restricted, even with my new health complications. Walking in an open space like this, particularly when there is a good breeze, lifts my spirits.

From a contemplative perspective, I am in very friendly territory. My senses relax into a more porous relationship with my surroundings. I begin to disappear into the landscape, losing myself in the experience of the moment. Very briefly, I am the path, the sky and the bramble.

Back in my envelope of skin I see grey above me, and I start to wonder about rain. I am not dressed for it. Luckily, at least for me, no rain falls. I do notice that the riot of life around me might like a good fresh soaking. But I’m conscious of my own interests now. I head for the shelter of my home.

THICH NHAT HANH ON AIMLESSNESS

Thich Nhat Hanh, the much loved Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, died on 22 January at the age of 95. He had been unwell for some time. He is remembered as peace activist, inventor of the term ‘interbeing’ and teacher of mindfulness practice. For him, this is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. We can be mindful at any moment, whether we are sad, joyful, angry, and whilst cooking, driving or about to send an email.

I am not a Buddhist. Instead, I feel and recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on my practice of Druidry – especially my sense of at-homeness, or presence, in the living moment. In memory and appreciation of him, I want to share a piece he wrote about aimlessness as as a ‘door of liberation’ (1).

“The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for and that you already are everything you want to become.

“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available right here in the present moment.

“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and lose ourselves along the way. We even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.

“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for? what am I waiting for? what am I searching for?'”

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

EXPLORING ‘EMPTINESS’: CARLO ROVELLI AND NAGARJUNA

A modern western humanist learns from an ancient Buddhist philosopher. Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland (1) is mostly about the development of quantum mechanics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the scientists who developed it. The title references ‘Werner Heisenberg’s sojourn on the remote island of Helgoland working on the maths. But one chapter concerns the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and how his work has helped Rovelli to frame a philosophical understanding of quantum phenomena.

“When speaking about quanta and their relational nature I had frequently met people who asked: Have you read Nagarjuna? … Though not widely read in the West, the work in question is hardly an obscure or minor one: it is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. … The central thesis of Nagarjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.

“The resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate. Obviously Nagarjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of re-thinking the world, and we can employ them if they turn out to be useful. The perspective offered by Nagarjuna make perhaps make it a little easier to think about the quantum world (2).

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else. The technical term used by Nagarjuna the absence of independent existence is ‘emptiness’ (sunyata): things are ‘empty’ in the sense of having no autonomous existence. They exist thanks to, as a function of, with respect to, in the perspective of, something else.

“If I look at a cloudy sky – to take a simplistic example – I can see a castle and a dragon. Does a castle and does a dragon really exist, up there in the sky? Obviously not: the dragon and the castle emerge from the encounter between the shape of the clouds and the sensations and thoughts in my head; in themselves they are empty entities, they do not exist. So far, so easy. But Nagarjuna also suggests that the clouds, the sky, sensations, thoughts and my own head are equally things that arise from the encounter with other things: they are empty entities.

“And myself, looking at the star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one says Nagarjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I normally call my ‘self’. ‘What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist.’ There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.

“Like much philosophy and much science, Nagarjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, its absence, is vacuity. It does not exist.

“If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nagarjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure … does not exist.

….

“The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognize this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude. For Nagarjuna, samsara and nirvana are the same thing: both empty of their own existence. Non-existent.

“So is emptiness the only reality? Is this, after all, the ultimate reality? No, writes Nagarjuna, in the most vertiginous chapter of the book: every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality – and this is the case for his own perspective as well. Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.

“Nagarjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation, In fact interdependence – and this is the key argument made by Nagarjuna, requires us to forget all about autonomous essences.

“The long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has passed through matter, molecules, atoms, fields, elementary particles … and has been shipwrecked in the relational complexity of quantum field theory and general relativity. Is is possible that a philosopher from ancient India can provide us with a conceptual tool with which to extricate ourselves?”

“The fascination of Nagarjuna’s thought goes beyond questions raised by contemporary physics. His perspective has something dizzying about it. It resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. … He speaks about reality, about its complexity and comprehensibility, but he defends us from the conceptual trap of wanting to find it an ultimate foundation.

“His is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety. It recognizes the fact that to inquire about the ultimate foundation of everything is to ask a question that perhaps simply does not make sense.

“This does not shut down investigation. On the contrary, it liberates it. Nagarjuna is not a nihilist negating the reality of the world, and neither is he a sceptic denying that we can know anything about that reality. The world of phenomena is one that we can investigate, gradually improving our understanding of it. We may find general characteristics. But it is a world of interdependence and contingencies, not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute.

“I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking – thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change. There is no cardinal or final fixed point, philosophical or methodological, with which to anchor the adventure of knowledge.

“I am not a philosopher; I am a physicist: a simple mechanic. And this simple mechanic, who deals with quanta, is taught by Nagarjuna that it is possible to think of the manifestation of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself, independent from its manifestations.

“But Nagarjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.

“For me as a human being, Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: The University Press, 1995. Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century CE, is the most important, influential and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. At the time of publication Jay L. Garfield was Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hampshire in India Program, an exchange program with the Tibetan Universities in exile, at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His translation is from a Tibetan, rather than Sanskrit, text.

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