contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Politics

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).

BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE

A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.

Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.

The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.

The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).

Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.

The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.

(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)

(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org

(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)

FACING EXTINCTION

My survival is on the line, along with any legacy and any memory of me. This applies to everyone I know and care for, and everyone else too. It applies to everything in culture and nature for which I have an affinity or to which I feel connected. Whenever I let this in, really let it in rather than just acknowledging it, I feel freshly shocked. Threat feels immediate. I have no sense of time.

After the first sense of a physical-energetic punch, there comes a pause, followed by a chaos of feelings, thoughts and images that stream for a while through my being. Eventually the storm passes. I regain some equilibrium, and with it a fuller presence in the flowing moment. There is something in the sheer joy of experiencing that remains unsullied and becomes my anchor. But I still need to ask myself how I stand with this awful knowledge, alongside another awful knowledge of the nuclear threat, and the normal knowledge of my own natural death. How do I respond to any of these? How, specifically, do I respond to ecological breakdown? The timescale here isn’t quite the possible ‘anytime’ of the other threats, and I may not be around. But it’s dangerously close, already compromising the life of the wider world. How do I hold this understanding? What do I do?

For me, this points to the value of psycho-spiritual as well as political work in facing the threat of a mass extinction on planet Earth. Last week I attended a promising taster for a forthcoming online course ‘Facing Reality’ (see https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/ calendar). This will use Focusing methods to look at what ecological breakdown means “for your life, work and relationships. How is it impacting you? What happens when you take it in?”. It starts from the premise that “many of us are feeling overwhelmed and confused but it’s hard to know what to do about it. In response, we often either turn away or dive into action without seriously confronting our reality and giving enough space to feel into our emotional and intuitive response. By finding the courage to turn towards the mess we are in with a like-minded community, we can empower our response in a more authentic way and build personal agency for our creativity, gifts and action”.

The course leaders quote a saying to the effect that we can avoid reality, but not the consequences of avoiding reality. Courses like this are a good way of facing reality in a supportive environment, and I plan to be part of this one. This one is open to the public. You don’t need a Focusing training to take part.

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

GOOD WILL

Dissolving into the dark, in a deeply receptive state, I find myself entertaining the word ‘will’, which soon morphs into ‘good will’.

Midwinter is traditionally a season of good will. I notice that I do feel largely at peace in my personal world, though distressed by many aspects of the bigger picture. Right now I’m experiencing a state of good will and I’d like to offer my good will to anyone who reads this post.

I’m also thinking about ‘will’, including good will, in another way. After the stasis, the turn. The seed of the turn is in the stasis; an awareness and anticipation of movement even in the moment when the sun seems at rest. A part of me is already looking forward, throwing my imagination before me, consciously willing, crafting intent.

This year my Contemplative Druidry book began to map out some potentials for contemplative practice based in Druidry, as seen by the book’s contributors, and the Contemplative Druid Events blog on www.contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com is a vehicle to set out what we are offering. There will be more to come – mostly emphasising half day sessions and one-day ‘contemplative days’. Whilst this activity is growing, I want to work more deeply at mapping possible relationships between the contemplative aspect of spirituality and its ritual and magical aspects (however defined) and its ethical (and by extension political) aspects. My starting point is that they all involve the issue of where we choose to put our attention, and how we enact and sustain our choices intentionally. ‘Will’ is a key term, and what we mean by will is a key inquiry.

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