contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Philosophy

BIOCENTRISM

Biocentrism (1) and the follow-up Beyond Biocentrism (2) are science-referenced explorations of cosmos and consciousness. Unusually, they present a ‘consciousness first’ view. In the first book authors Robert Lanza and Bob Berman work through the evidence and identify seven principles of biocentrism.

“If one removes space and time as actual entities rather than subjective, relative and observer-created phenomena, it pulls the rug from the notion that an external world exists within its own independent skeleton. Where is this external objective existence if it has neither time nor space? we can, at this point formulate seven principles:

“First Principle of Biocentrism: What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An ‘external’ reality if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

“Second Principle of Biocentrism: Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

“Third Principle of Biocentrism: The behaviour of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

“Fourth Principle of Biocentrism: without consciousness, ‘matter’ dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

“Fifth Principle of Biocentrism: the structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The ‘universe’ is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

“Sixth Principle of Biocentrism: Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

“Seventh Principle of Biocentrism: Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.”

Beyond Biocentrism summarises and extends Biocentrism. It does not repeat the principles, but elegantly summarises the perspective of biocentrism and takes the argument into new territory. An appendix to the book lists its major topics as: the exploration of time; the unreality of death; the nonreality of space; the nature of consciousness; science proofs of biocentrism; asking about awareness in machines (probably no) and plants (certainly yes).

When I contemplate biocentric thinking, I feel engaged and intrigued – without taking a stance on its truth claims. I can see how the universe of the space/time continuum, and within it the earth that I love, may be but a bubble of local, provisional reality. In the light of this narrative, simply experiencing life, being part of it, feels vividly magical. The effect is to ground me even more in my earth spirituality, gratefully celebrating the experienced here and now.

(1) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2009

(2) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2016

SCEPTICISM, OPENNESS AND FLOW

This post summarises where I stand philosophically at this stage of my inquiry, and how my stance affects my practice. When investigating the Direct Path (1) I realised that one possible destination might be a radical scepticism about everything. Awakening to Awareness as ultimate ground of being is not the inevitable end point. The only Direct Path teacher who publicly discusses this is Greg Goode (2), who says: “Over the years, I had studied many philosophies and paths. I was aware of a variety of vocabularies. And now, unless I was explicitly playing the role of a direct path participant, none of these vocabularies seemed preferable in terms of truth or accuracy. When I was left to myself, experience didn’t show up as anything at all. There was nothing strictly true or strictly false to say about it”.

Goode reports a sense of confirmation on reading a privately circulated document attributed to Shri Atamananda Krishna Menon, founder of the Direct Path. According to Greg Goode, the gist is “that we can’t say anything at all … everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists! It’s a joyful, effusive case of saying without saying!” It helped Goode to get to his final position of ‘joyful irony’, which I have discussed in an earlier post. (3). His key point is that “the joyful ironist has found loving, open-hearted happiness without dogmatism”. For this to work “the joy and the irony must work together. If you’re joyful without being ironic, you’ll still have attachments to your own views of things. And if you’re ironic without being joyful, you may be bitter, cynical, sarcastic and pessimistic. Heartfelt wisdom includes both sides. Joy adds love to irony. Irony adds clarity to joy.” (2)

This sounds almost postmodern, but in fact echoes an ancient wisdom. Philip Carr-Gomm (4) shows its presence in Jain ethics, grounded in the three principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant. Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence. Aparigraha is the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, Anekant is a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as completing each other, with non-absolutism as an intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and hence a virtue.

Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE, probably met both Jains and Buddhists, when accompanying Alexander ‘the Great’ to India. Indian influence is certainly evident the school of philosophy he created on his return home. In Greek culture this school was treated as a form of Scepticism, but unlike other Sceptics, Pyrrhonists “neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience” (5).  This teaching seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism and the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukka, (suffering or dis-ease).

As my contemplative inquiry has progressed, I have grown increasingly attracted to the wisdom of this view. I name it as openness, to keep my inquiry process appreciative rather than deconstructive. I have written about it before and this post builds on others. What I notice now is a greater clarity and confidence in this view, reinforcing my stance of At-Homeness in ‘the flowing moment’. Although not perfectly reliable, this At-Homeness is as close as I get to a place of safety. Everything else is uncertain. Everything else can be taken away. I treat ‘flowing moment’ as a simple description of living experience. I find stillness there if I slow down and attend to it. Stillness can be a portal to spontaneous joy and appreciation if I open up and am present to them . It is a good basis for coming back to Earth. From this space I can better connect with other beings, the wider world and the wheel of the year.

(1) A name given to the teachings inspired by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 -1959).

(2) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/greg-goode-and-joyful-irony/

(4) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

(5) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968. Scepticism is the last book Arne Naess wrote as an academic philosopher, before going on to devote himself to the development of deep ecology, coining the term ecosophy to describe his stance.)

GREG GOODE AND ‘JOYFUL IRONY’

Greg Goode has been a student and teacher of the Direct Path, a name given to the teachings inspired by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 -1959). He describes the path as providing “a strikingly modern way to experience peace and happiness that are unruffled by circumstances” (1).

Goode, who is based in New York, also holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Rochester and serves on the board of the peer-reviewed journal Practical Philosophy: Journal of the American Philosopher’s Association. He champions a modern form of radical scepticism based on a combination of eastern and western influences. In the extract below, he talks about the inspiration of the American philosopher and ‘liberal ironist’ Richard Rorty (1931-2007) in his own work.

“For most of his forty-year career, Rorty challenged the ideas of philosophical certainties and metaphysical foundations. … For Rorty, ‘liberals’ are those who wish to avoid cruelty to others and ‘ironists’ are those who face up to how their most cherished beliefs and desires have no objective grounds.

“Rorty’s work in this area spoke deeply to me, so I adapted his political antimetaphysical notion of the liberal ironist for spiritual purposes, conceiving the ‘joyful ironist’. The joyful ironist has found loving, open-hearted happiness without dogmatism. The joy comes from love and happiness, often found as a result of inquiry, insight, or devotion. The ‘irony’ has to do with a radical relationship to conceptuality and language, as explained below.

“Normally, we have a vocabulary (which includes a conceptual scheme) that we feel expresses the truth of things. Rorty calls this ‘our final vocabulary’. For those on a spiritual path, the path itself may become their final vocabulary. For others, their final vocabulary may be popular science. Whatever their final vocabulary, people believe it’s better than other vocabularies at representing reality accurately and correctly. Perhaps they believe it’s grounded or guaranteed by reality itself. A final vocabulary might not even be recognized as a vocabulary by those using it. It might just feel like ‘the truth’. This could be called the metaphysical approach to truth and language.

“In joyful irony, we continue to use language, and we continue to have a final vocabulary, but with a difference. We no longer have a model in which there’s language on one side and reality on the other, and our vocabulary points to reality. In fact, the very idea of a strict dualism between language and reality stops making sense. It’s not that one side creates or reduces to the other. Rather, the idea of drawing a line to separate them loses the sense it had before. The issue no longer has any metaphysical importance. No vocabulary seems as if it does the best job of drawing such a line.

“The joy and the irony must work together. If you’re joyful without being ironic, you’ll still have attachments to your own views of things. And if you’re ironic without being joyful, you may be bitter, cynical, sarcastic and pessimistic. Heartfelt wisdom includes both sides. Joy adds love to irony. Irony adds clarity to joy.”

 

(1) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016

PYRRHO, SCEPTICISM, ARNE NAESS

In my last post  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/ ‎I introduced Pyrrho of Elis, a Pagan Greek philosopher who, returning from an extended visit to India, sounded a new note in Greek philosophy. In the Greek cultural context, this was heard as a variant form of Scepticism. Originally a skeptikos was “a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates etc.” (1) though over time Scepticism came to signify a kind of compulsive doubting, as it does now. The extract below shows the distinctiveness of Pyrrho’s project, and its likely debt to Buddhist ideas of the time.

“Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with Scepticism in Western philosophy. But unlike Sceptics, who believe there are no true beliefs, Pyrrhonists suspend judgement about all beliefs, including the belief that there are no true beliefs. Pyrrhonism was developed by a line of ancient Greek philosophers, from its founder Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth century BCE through Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. Since beliefs are attachments to what is not evident, they say, and are therefore distorting, uncertain, and subject to challenge and contradiction, they generate anxiety and fear, compounding suffering. By suspending judgement on beliefs, Pyrrhonists seek to liberate themselves from attachment to things nonevident; having achieved this, they claim a certain tranquillity (ataraxia) follows. Only appearances are evident, they say, these being sensations and thoughts which we cannot help having, which are involuntary, and it is by them rather than by our beliefs that we should live.

“Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism. Indeed, its origins can plausibly be traced to the contacts between Pyrrho and the sages he encountered in India, where he travelled with Alexander the Great. Even though Pyrrhonism went on to develop in a Greek idiom without reference to Eastern traditions, the similarity is remarkable, suggesting a commonality of insight not much explored. Although Pyrrhonism has not been practised in the West since ancient times, its insights occasionally have been independently recovered, most recently in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. They remain relevant, perhaps more than ever, as an antidote to today’s cultures of belief.” (1)

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher now associated with the the deep ecology movement and coiner of the term ‘ecosophy’, was a modern admirer of Pyrrhonism and wrote a book about it in 1968 (2). I intend to follow this up in my continuing inquiry, partly to find out how his engagement with Pyrrho and Greek Scepticism may have informed his later development..

  1. Adrian Kuzminski Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism New York: Lexington Books, 2008
  2. Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968)

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

 

 

 

 

 

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/

A NEW INQUIRY CYCLE

After an eight-month silence, I feel prompted to write again. These months have featured both continuity and change in my contemplative life. I have decided to stay with the theme of Contemplative Inquiry, framing my work as a new inquiry cycle.

I  wrote in August 2018 that ‘I find ‘healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness’*. At the same time my ‘Sophian Way’ has taken what might be described as a secular turn, as a loving friendship with wisdom and its source. In this respect I follow in the footsteps of those ancient Greeks who invented philosophy (love of wisdom) as a new space somewhat independent of their gods and traditional stories.

They used this space to ask, more directly, questions about being human, about what it is that supports human flourishing, and looked for new ways of understanding the world in which they found themselves. I have come to value contemplative life mostly as a context and support in relating to myself, other people, culture and nature. Hence, again following the Greeks, my contemplative life and inquiry include (using their own terms) therapeutics, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Contemplative presence warmly holds the life of the body, feelings, mind and imagination. It is their ground and home. The inquiry moves beyond that space, and into the wider world.

In early posts, I will look in more detail at ways of working that now guide me, offer a new understanding of Sophia, engage with a deeper exploration of the term ‘secular’ and look at the problems raised by metaphysical truth claims and how I deal with them. I hope that these posts will establish the note of the new inquiry cycle.

 

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

In his Reclaiming Civilization (1), modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers asks three questions: What is civilization? What is wrong with it? What should we do about it? As part of his work with the third question, he looks at ethics. He starts with the proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good. This proposition may seem simple and obvious, yet it has not been a reliable quality of ‘civilization’ as we know and have known it.

Myers goes on to describe virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a flourishing happy life, we need to install ways of understanding, responding to, and acting in the world that will tend to support it. These are the virtues. Through the process of identifying and working with virtues, we reach towards the person we want to be and the world we want to live in. Myers implies a necessary inner work, when he speaks of “the possibility of a greater depth of life-experience that can appear when I am willing to let go of my illusions, willing to risk harm and despair, in pursuit of a more honest relationship with reality” He then presents his own list, offering his virtues as ways of responding to three ‘immensities’: earth, interpersonal otherness, and solitude/death.

For earth, the virtues are “those ways of being in the world that enable you to look upon the earth, in all its beauty and danger yet feel no need to own it all, nor to destroy it … but to explore it, play with it, know it. Myers recommends “virtues of wonder: including imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, aesthetic taste, and curiosity”. He adds that this does not preclude practices such as farming but does call for them to be “conducted in careful (as in full-of-care), sustainable and co-operative ways”.

For interpersonal otherness, the virtues are “those ways of being that enable you to look upon your neighbor, however strange or different she may be, and feel no need to make her conform to your demands, nor a need to send her away (such as, to her death) … the virtues … enable you to see another earth, in a manner of speaking … your neighbor’s eyes are another way of looking upon the earth … you have another way of exploring it”. Here, Myers recommends “virtues of humanity” – care, courage, friendship, generosity and the “Seven Grandfathers of Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love and Respect”.

For “the immensity of solitude, and of death”, the virtues are qualities that contradict any need to avoid solitude and death at “any cost, however destructive to yourself and others”. These, for Myers, are “virtues of integrity: including reason, consistency, dignity, Socratic wisdom, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness, mercy, the will to establish a legacy, and the will to let go”.

When I reviewed Reclaiming Civilization last year (2) I knew that I would want to return to it and examine its ethical approach more closely. What I like about this approach is that it avoids both a ‘follow your bliss’ vagueness and a rigid prescriptive system. It fits very well with my sense of a Sophian Way. It suggests principles and a method and then challenges us to develop our own list. Here, we have an ethics that asks for close attention, questioning and (I would suggest) a continuous work of understanding our chosen ‘virtues’ and checking them out in practice. For me, the notion of a flourishing life for ourselves and others has to extend to the biosphere. A purely human approach no longer serves even we humans ourselves. I also like an approach that (without being partisan) has political implications. It is not just an ethics for private life. Myers provides a tool for living the ‘good life’, and perhaps, identifying possible contributions to reclaiming (and re-framing) ‘civilization’ – the central theme of Myers’ book and the context for his ethical discussion.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-recl…ing-civilization/ ‎

 

 

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

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

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