contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Naturalism

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/

CARLO ROVELLI ON TIME

“We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come.”

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist working on the physics of space and time, currently directing the quantum gravity research group of the Centre de physique theoretique in Marseille, France.   In his The Order of Time (1), he is writing for a lay readership, offering a naturalist view of time and what it means to us. His reflections draw both on his professional work and his easy familiarity with art, literature, philosophy and music.

In the first section of this book, he deconstructs the time of common-sense. “Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place. A duration can only be associated with the movement of something, with a given trajectory”. Rovelli’s Cosmos shows itself through change, events and processes – not through entities or things. We can know it only through what happens, interacts and evolves; through becoming rather than being. The notion that the present is ‘real’, while the past and future are not, only works if we define ‘present’ locally and in an approximate way.

From the standpoint of quantum mechanics, time is ‘granular’ and not continuous. (The Goddess is a pointillist). Grains, or quanta, of time last for a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. “In other words, a minimal interval of time exists. Below this, the notion of time does not exist, even in its most basic meaning”. Quanta of time, like other quanta, are ‘indeterminate’. “The substratum that determines the duration of time is not an independent entity different from the others that make up the world; it is an aspect of a dynamic field. It jumps, fluctuates, materializes only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale”. Yet the absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving. It is, rather, “a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”

Having arrived at this point in his narrative, Rovelli begins to play with different uses of temporal language in the same space and restores our sense of having ground to stand on. He tells the story of how, in 1967, physicists Bryce de Witt and John Wheeler developed an equation accounting for quantum gravity without any time variable. Rovelli first makes the appropriate science related point: “there is nothing mysterious about the absence of time in the fundamental equation of quantum gravity. It is only the consequence of the fact that, at the fundamental level, no special variable exists”. Then he starts talking personally – with a long passage of reminiscence about how he knew and valued de Witt and Wheeler as his “spiritual fathers” early in his career. He is signaling that the warmth of human subjectivity, kept alive in memory, and allowing for a sense of cultural ancestry, is not after all under threat. Professionally he inhabits a world of loop quantum gravity, where time and space “are approximations of a quantum dynamic that in itself knows neither space nor time”. Personally, he relishes human life and values his human sense of time.

Rovelli then asks: what is going on that allows us even to experience such a life and sense, if time isn’t, in fact, fundamental to it? He responds by talking about ‘emergence’. He reminds us that we see the sky turning around us every day, but we are the ones who are turning. “Is the daily spectacle of a revolving universe ‘illusory’?” he asks. “No, it is real, but it doesn’t involve the cosmos alone. It involves our relation with the sun. We understand it by asking ourselves how we move. Cosmic movement emerges from the relation between the cosmos and ourselves.”. In the case of time, we inhabit a cosmic niche that depends on low entropy, which in turn depends on a forward moving time. We earthlings have a source of low entropy – the sun, which sends us hot photons. The earth radiates heat towards the black sky, emitting colder photons, increasing the level of entropy. We hold that the entropy of the early universe was very low, eventually creating the conditions for our relationship with the sun to happen. But, as with the wheel of the day, this may not reflect the precise state of the universe: “The initial low entropy of the universe, and hence the arrow of time, may be more down to us than the universe itself”. For we observe the universe from within it, interacting with a minuscule proportion of the innumerable particles of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. In every experience, we are situated in the world: within a mind, a brain, a position in space, a moment in time”. Our lived experience shapes our understanding, including our experience of time.

In this sense, time as we know it is our invention, with our brain’s capacity for foresight and recollection the consequence of an evolutionary advantage within our inherited habitat. Rovelli is fine with that. It is truly the time of our experience, our hopes, our memories, our awareness of our own mortality, and much of our philosophy, poetry and music. Rovelli concludes the book with an elegant reflection:

“Song, as Augustine observed, is the awareness of time. It is time. It is the hymn of the Vedas that is itself the flowering of time. In the Benedictus of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the song of the violin is pure beauty, pure desperation, pure joy. We are suspended, holding our breath, feeling mysteriously that this must be the source of meaning, that this is time.

“Then the song fades and ceases. ‘The silver thread is broken, the golden lantern is shattered, the amphora at the fountain breaks, the bucket falls into the well, the earth returns to dust.’ And it is fine like this. We can close our eyes, rest. This all seems fair and beautiful to me. This is time.”

Carlo Rovelli The Order of Time Allen Lane, UK: 2018 Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. (Allen Lane is an imprint of Penguin Books)

 

SPIDER

I’ve been busy with spiders over the last few weeks, noticing their variety both indoors and out. There’s one outside my window as I write. Some of this attention has involved removing spiders from the house. As I become more sensitized to their sentience, I’ve grown somewhat ambivalent about this. Yet from a wider household perspective, it does need to be done. The extract below is from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and looks at the life of a spider.

“Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly ‘programmed in its genes.’ Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parent and predecessors. Whatever ‘instructions’, however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself in any given moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distances between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening.

“The genome could not have explicitly commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited ‘programs’, patterns or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate its genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’”.

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

This book has been an inspiration to many people over the last 20 years, including both naturalist and animist Pagans. The extract comes from a section entitled The Mindful Life of the Body.

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

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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