contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Science

POEM: NOTIONS

I like this poem for its depiction of a young person’s best efforts, leading to the experience of ‘discourse by dismissal’ and a counter-affirmation of the ‘vigour of heresy’.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate

Plurality should not be posited without necessity

                William of Ockam

In my first serious essay

For Religious Studies

I apply Occam’s razor

(Choice of budding scientist)

To God’s reputation:

All power to do all things,

All essence in all things,

All guidance for all things,

Past, present, future.

Keeping it simple, I favour

The universe as it is, in its cycles

Of boom and dust, orbits

And double-helix feats, all

Loosed by laws of urge

And reaction, lure and strife,

First seed, last song,

Billiard balls colliding

Ad infinitum, no recourse

To maker or judge.

I await appreciation

Of insight and logic, but

None comes, others praised

In a covenant of dogma,

My first taste of discourse

By dismissal, my first vow

For the vigour of heresy.

Earl Livings Libation Port Adelaide, AUS: Ginninderra Press, 2018 www.ginninderapress.com.au

NOTE: Earl Livings lives in Melbourne, Australia and edited Divan, Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal from 1999 to 2013. His first poetry collection Further than Night, was published in 2000, and in 2005 he won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Britain, Canada, the USA and Germany. He is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.

My thanks to Nimue Brown for drawing attention to the Libation collection at http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/

SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

As part of my contemplative inquiry, I have been looking at recent work by Rupert Sheldrake (1, 2). He identifies himself as “not a guru but an explorer”. I like that notion of ‘explorer’, with its sense that there is always space for new learning and development.

Sheldrake’s affirms that spiritual practice and research are “entirely consistent with the scientific method, which involves the formation of hypotheses – guesses about the way the world works – and then testing them experimentally. The ultimate arbiter is experience, not theory. In French, the word experience means both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. The Greek word for experience is empeiria, the root of our English word ‘empirical’. The exploration of consciousness through consciousness itself is literally empirical, based on experience. Spiritual practices provide ways in which consciousness can be explored empirically.”

In recent years, Sheldrake (1,2) has written two books based on this approach. Each discusses seven different practices that have been investigated empirically, both by the practitioners themselves and by scientists studying the effects of those practices. Every practice gets a chapter. The first book, Science and Spiritual Practices, offers:

  1. Meditation and the Nature of Minds
  2. The Flow of Gratitude
  3. Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
  4. Relating to Plants
  5. Rituals and the Presence of the Past
  6. Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
  7. Pilgrimages and Holy Places

The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:

  1. The Spiritual Side of Sports
  2. Learning from Animals
  3. Fasting
  4. Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings
  5. Powers of Prayer
  6. Holy Days and Festivals
  7. Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind

Sheldrake’s choices are all practices he has taken part in, which have also been studied scientifically. He looks at both the ‘subjective’ experience and the ‘objective’ evidence and discusses the ways in which the practices seem to work. He also offers guidance to readers about engaging with the practices. He is very clear that the two books “do not constitute a comprehensive survey of all spiritual practices, emphasising his point by listing others that have been left out: “yoga, service to others, tai chi, chi gong, devotional worship or bhakti, tantric sex, caring for dying people, dream yoga, and the practices of the arts”. He makes it clear that “some practices are better at some times of life than others, and all religious traditions  have their own combinations”. I have already discussed Sheldrake’s work on gratitude at www.contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/14/ and will discuss others in future posts.

Sheldrake’s overall purpose is “to show that there is a wide variety of ways to connect to greater conscious realities, however we conceive of them, and that the effects of these practices can be investigated empirically”. Sheldrake is an optimist about the possibilities of science and spirituality working together in the service of human flourishing. “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness, both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them. After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience Coronet, 2017

(2) Rupert Sheldrake Ways to Go Beyond, and Why They Work Coronet, 2019

NOTE: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books, including A New Science of Life. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sheldrake resigned his position at Clare and went to work on the physiology of tropical crops in Hyderabad, India, as principal plant physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 1974 to 1978. There he published on crop physiology] and co-authored a book on the anatomy of the pigeonpea. Sheldrake left ICRISAT to focus on writing A New Science of Life, during which time he spent a year and a half in the Saccidananda Ashram of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warwick Project for research on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

His website is www.sheldrake.org/

POEM: FIELD

They will not mesh, the very small and the large.

They will not converge.

On that side of the mirror, flickering fringes –

Superposition, quantum probabilities,

Shimmering light and dark; on this,

Nature has made its choice.

Time, space –

They will not bend both ways at once.

When the little ideas slip into bodies like clothes

They step through the mirror, enter

An irreducible level of noise –

Gravitational decoherence, dependent on mass.

Worlds, how sad we are to leave our dreaming behind.

So lovely we were then, so light, so playful.

But how compelling to have a body. In fact,

Irresistible.

From: Katrina Porteous Edge Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2019

Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”

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

WORLD TREE: A HOLOTROPIC VISION

“The unified field of cosmic energy that I had experienced before now became a massive tree of radiant energy suspended in space. Larger than the largest galaxy, it was composed entirely of light. The core of the tree was lost to the brilliant display but limbs and leaves were visible around its edges. I experienced myself as one of the leaves, the lives of my family and close friends were clustered around me on a small branch. All of our distinguishing characteristics, what made us the individuals we were, appeared from this perspective to be quite minor, almost arbitrary variations of this fundamental energy.

“I was taken around the tree and shown how to move from one person’s experience to another and it was ridiculously easy. Different lives around the globe were simply different experiences the tree was having. … At this point, I was the tree. Not that I was having the full range of its experience, but I knew myself to be this single, encompassing Consciousness. I knew that its identity was my true identity. … To experience my true Identity filled me with a profound sense of numinous encounter”.

The above experience is reported by one of Stanislav Grof’s research subjects in his inquiry into “non-ordinary states of consciousness”. As a young psychiatrist in Soviet era Czechoslovakia Grof pioneered the therapeutic use of LSD. The authorities welcomed ‘progressive’ chemical treatments as an alternative to the bourgeois introspection of psychoanalysis. Seeking greater freedom, and given an opportunity to work in the USA, Grof became a Professor in the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He continued his clinical and research work until it was banned in 1967 due to a moral panic about psychotropic drugs. His response was to invent holotropic breathing, a ‘natural’ and legal method of giving people access to the same states. Grof became a founder of the Transpersonal Association, which affirmed the place of spirituality in the therapeutic domain. Grof also developed a close association with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and became a leading figure in the counter-culture of the day.

Grof disliked the limitations he perceived in conventional scientific culture, in particular the view that “our boundaries were defined by the surface of the skin, and consciousness was seen as nothing more than the product of that thinking organ known as the brain”. He thought that scientific culture had developed in an ethnocentric way and was irrationally closed to information gained in non-ordinary states. For him, there was a limiting conflation of ‘objective reality’ and ‘consensus reality’. Anything referenced beyond this was open to dismissal “as the product of an overly active imagination or a mental disorder”, and thus delegitimised in conventional scientific discourse. Grof became interested in archetypal images like the world or cosmic tree because he found them coming up frequently in sessions, as phenomena inviting “numinous encounter”.

For me, reports of this kind add strength to the image of the world tree, though my personal experience of it is different. Some images, like that of the the world (or cosmic) tree, or tree of life, appear in many different cultures and historical periods. They are widely thought of as universal. But the specific ways in which they appear, and the meanings ascribed to them, vary with place, time and culture.

Stanislav Grof The Holotropic Mind: the Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993 (Written with Hal Zena Bennett)

CELEBRATING THE MYSTERY

Yesterday my wife Elaine and I went to visit Gloucester Cathedral, where a beautifully crafted model of the moon has been hung in the body of the church. There were many visitors, most of them clearly drawn to this display and enlivened by it. For everyone there was something special about a scientifically accurate depiction of the moon in a medieval Christian building that continues to be an active space for worship. For some, the presence of the moon would also have suggested Pagan and archetypal references to provide a balancing influence in a splendidly patriarchal setting. It also allowed for a sense of only slightly subdued informality and fun, which I don’t generally associate with Church of England cathedrals. People felt free to enjoy themselves, and I give great credit to the organisers for their achievement.

The concept paid tribute to our age-old human search for meaning, and a sense of place within the cosmos. I was reminded of some reading I’d done only a couple of days before, and I’ve checked out the reference. For me, the image above and the words below show the same attractive spirit, one I find an inspiration for my contemplative inquiry.

“Both science and spirituality reflect our human urge to know – that perennial itch to make sense of the world and who we are. This quest is an essential part of being human. We probe reality as best we can with our tools of understanding – structures, models, theories, myths, beliefs, teachings – but those tools of understanding also define the limits of our knowledge. … There is no ultimate truth. No teacher, no scientist will give us all the answers. Let us simply bow to the intelligence of our hearts, drop into not knowing, keep our minds open, cherish the questions, and let the answers arise and evolve, all the while celebrating this mystery called life.”*

*Zia and Maurizio Benazzo On the Mystery of Being: Contemporary Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality Oakland, CA: Reveal Press, 2019. (Reveal Press is an imprint of New Harbinger Press)

SOPHIAN WISDOM

This post is about Sophian wisdom and how to nurture it. It is based on a new understanding of a familiar story. In October 2016  (1), I reviewed Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight (2). Bolte Taylor, then a neuroanatomist at the Harvard Medical School, experienced a devastating stroke. There was terrible loss, and luminous discovery. Her left-brain hemisphere was almost destroyed and needed eight years of intensive work to recover. She lost her agency, her language centres, her narrative identity, her memories, her ambition, her busyness and her ‘hostility’ (her own word). “Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning”. But a quality of experiencing continued – peaceful, at times euphoric, with what Bolte Taylor subsequently described as a sense of grace, and of being-at-one with the universe.

Even from within this state, Bolte Taylor eventually found the will to recover what she had lost. But this would not be a simple return to life before the stroke. “It would have to be something new …When I experienced the haemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my ‘self’, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a very clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely connected to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world”.

According to Bolte Taylor, “the right brain thinks in collages and images. Responding to the longer wave lengths of light, its visual perception is blended and softened, with a lack of edge that allows it to dwell on the bigger picture and how things relate to one another. It tunes in to the lower frequencies of sound that are readily generated by our body gurgles and other natural tones. It is biologically designed to readily tune in to our physiology”.

For me, now, Bolte Taylor’s story suggests an understanding of Sophia and what her wisdom might be pointing to. She quotes a saying: ‘peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve’.  We can live from this insight without the need for a stroke. My contemplative practice works to actualise this insight in a more gradual, gentler way. But to live a full human life, we need all our resources. As Bolte Taylor says. “We begin in this place, but we don’t isolate ourselves there. We need to use the skills of the left mind too, permeating it with this sense of peace and connectedness”.

The left mind “perceives the shorter wavelengths of light, increasing its ability to clearly delineate sharp boundaries – adept at identifying separation lines between adjacent entities. It tunes into the higher frequencies of sound, supporting the development and use of language. It speaks constantly, weaves stories, processes information with remarkable speed and efficiency, maintains personal identity and communicates with the outside world”, Thus the wisdom of Sophia starts from the peaceful and connected consciousness of our ‘right mind’ while using the skills of our’ left mind’ to bring it out in the wider world.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/

(2) Jill Bolte Taylor My Stroke of Insight: a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

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.

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015
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