contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Soul

BOOK REVIEW: SOUL LAND

Highly recommended to anyone who values the poetry of place. Natalia Clarke’s Soul Land: Nature, Scotland, Love (1) is a chapbook featuring 22 poems about her connection with Scottish landscape. That connection is intense, and shared in these poems through a powerful and distinctive voice.

The poet grew up in Siberia, enjoying “immersive life and experiences with nature and magic” (2), before being exposed to “intense emotions of love and loss at a tender age”. Her journey took her to England and its publishing industry with a later shift into the field of psychotherapy and a personal spiritual awakening. This is the context for the visit to Scotland “that changed me on a profound level”. She fell in love with what she came to call her “Soul Land”.

In the poem Love Everlasting, she writes:

“My knees touched the greenness

of your body and in

awe I stood amidst a stone

circle feeling protected and

contained.

I lowered myself into your

cooling stream imagining I

washed myself anew”.

The words have both erotic and mystical resonances: perhaps it misses the point even to make the distinction. In another poem The Land of Me, she talks of the land “stealing my soul” and how this theft feels like “the gentlest fall into paradise”.

This is not a song of life and work within a landscape and the human culture it has shaped, and which has shaped it in turn. It is a personal I-Thou connection with a sacred space that the poet visits from time to time. Natalia Clarke is clear and sensitive about this, as shown in Through the Eyes of A Highlander, where we find a different consciousness of place, and in his case, its human history: “Where I see beauty he sees barren landscape … where I feel silence he shudders with sorrow”. Natalia Clarke knows that her sense of home, in this for her newly discovered land, is bound up with her own life and longing, and what she brings to the encounter.

In the later poems we find a closer observation of detail – “water silky soft and the colour of silver … green pine needles hitting my senses with clean potent fragrance”. The land feels more maternal – even, in a sense grandmaternal. In the poem In My Dreams You Visit Me the poet finds herself “transformed into the old Cailleach walking the hills and mountains with deer by her side”.

Natalia Clarke feels blessed in this wild space: “inhaling paradise, assured, grounded, humble, in your exquisite perfection”. Although led by her intuition and her feelings, she shows how her experience of the Scottish landscape has indeed grounded her.

“’All is well,’ the land whispers

into my soul spreading her

seasons around me”.

In a prose conclusion to the collection, Natalia Clarke also spells out the conceptual basis of her way of experiencing and relating. The key terms are ‘home’, ‘soul’s calling’ and ‘nature’. Home is “our secure ground, safety and knowing” with a feeling-tone that is “contented and contained”. She speaks here as a person who has lost her link with her “original motherland” and has needed to find ‘home’ elsewhere. A soul call is “very impulse driven, animalistic and instinctual”, asking us “to be more, to feel more” and join “something beyond yourself, new, meaningful and expansive”. Nature is not simply about solace. Deep understanding of nature can bring both peace and turmoil into our souls, “as processes are parallel within nature and if we tune into nature’s rhythms, we risk deeper understanding of ourselves”. True homecoming, the homecoming that involves soul, asks us to take risks as well as offering safety. For Natalia Clarke, Nature favours the brave.

(1) Soul Land: Nature – Scotland -Love Kibworth, UK: Matador, 2020

(2) https://rawnaturespirit.com/ (The collection can be ordered from this site by clicking on ‘publications’.)

A WORLD WITH SOUL

‘Not in the entire living world is there to be found anything so deformed as that which does not have the gift of soul.’ Marsilio Ficino The Planets

“Soul is an elusive word. For many, soul has an invisible but finite essence, made of some spiritual substance, that keeps the body together and functioning in life and flies off to another dimension at death. In relation to the body, it is like a genie in a bottle …

“The soul that Ficino places at the center of his professional and personal life is not this creature of folk religion. For him soul is a quality of existence, and the human soul is precisely that which makes one a human. Soul is a quality rather than a quantity. For that reason it a better to speak of soul rather than a soul. …

” … Having soul, we feel a reverberation carrying through and beneath the surface of everyday experience. With soul, events are not merely two-dimensional; they carry an invisible but clearly felt dimension of depth. These resonances do not appear as meaning and explanation, nor even as understanding – that would be height, the work of intellect. Soul cannot be fabricated by evaluating experience, trying to figure it out, or through intense introspection. The significance of soul is clearly downward, away from the head, closer to the stomach where the outside world is absorbed, internalised and broken down …

” … In Greek mythology the natural world accessible to our senses is mirrored by an underworld where there is no flesh or bone but only phantasms or immaterial images. Here again are labyrinthine passages leading to numerous chambers where strange happenings reflect the world above … Soul, then, involves a dying to the natural world and indeed imagination is not unlike digestive transformation, To live with soul requires a willingness to descend into the depths of events, to let their literalness and our own literal reactions die in favour of another perspective, to see the world as if from below. Like Orpheus, we can sing of our exploits, having become acquainted with the underworld through a descent.” (1)

In my last post (2) I discussed a recognition in modern Druidry of three dimensions of experience: physical, psychic and causal. I said that my awen work was nudging me to strengthen the psychic level, the level of soul. The word soul itself appears in a variant form of the triad using the terms body (or matter), soul and spirit. In order to embrace this language again, I am reframing these terms as traditionally understood. On psyche, or soul, I find Thomas Moore’s interpretation of Marsilio Ficino’s (3) work very helpful for this purpose. My only reservation is that although he attributes ‘soul’ to books, art and music, he has little to say – at least here – about non-human beings or the land itself.

(1) Thomas Moore The Planets Within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1990

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/23/beyond-mindfulness/

(3) Marsilio Ficino lived in the fiftenth century Florence, the Florence of the Medici’s. He is remembered as one of the great minds of the Italian Renaissance, and Cosimo Medici supported him in the creation of the Florentine Academy. The Academy revived the perspectives of the last generations of Pagan philosophers in the Roman Empire. Ficino was grounded in the work of Plato and the Neo-Platonism of the later Roman period. He also translated the key texts of Hellenistic-Egyptian Hermetics. Ficino is a cultural ancestor for both humanist scholarship and esoteric spirituality.

CONTEMPLATING SOUL

What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: STEPHEN BATCHELOR

Stephen Batchelor offers some thoughts on immediate experience and concepts of mind, soul and reincarnation.

 

“I had noticed that when listening to the song of a bird, it was impossible to differentiate the cooing of the wood pigeon, on the one hand, and the hearing of it, on the other.  Conceptually the two were different, but, in immediate experience, I could not have one without the other, I could not draw a line between them, I could not say where the bird song stopped and my hearing of it began.  There was just a single, primary, undifferentiated me-hearing-the-birdsong.

“Being-in-the-world means that I am inextricably linked into the fabric of this fluid, indivisible, and contingent reality I share with others.  There is no room for a disembodied mind or soul, however subtle, to float free of this condition, to contemplate it from a hypothetical Archimedean point outside.  Without such a mind or soul, it is hard to conceive of anything that will go into another life once this one comes to an end”.

Stephen Batchelor, 2011, Confession of a Buddhist atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau

CONSIDERING KARMA

I’ve been wondering about the traditional doctrine of karma and rebirth, and what place it now has. Both Paganism and the New Age inherit a nineteenth century Theosophical version of this doctrine, positing a personal soul journey, a movement through time in successive incarnations, depending on track record and learning needs. It is somewhat different from the Buddhist view (and also the one attributed by classical writers to the ancient Druids) but my sense is that it still has considerable authority. It was treated as a given by my mentors at the London Centre of Transpersonal Psychology, when I studied with them in the late 80s and early 90s.

But it’s never been universal and as part of my own inquiry I present two other perspectives from within the Asian traditions themselves. One is from the late Tantric Master Osho and the other from the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor. I particularly like Steven Batchelor’s statement that “shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present … demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” This to him is more important than the truth or otherwise of the doctrine itself. However I start with Osho, in an iconoclastic mood.

OSHO

“You live encapsulated inside your buffers, philosophies, consolations. Life ends one day – you can console yourself. … You can start believing in the theory of reincarnation: that you will be reborn and the soul is eternal … Or you can think that it is only the body that dies. And what is a body? Nothing but bones, marrow, flesh, blood; it is nothing of worth, it is useless, a dirty bag – so let it die. But your pure soul is going to be forever and ever – a buffer is created. These buffers don’t allow you to see what reality is; they are the way to console yourself.

“Yes. There is misery, but one can protect oneself from misery by creating conceptions, rationalizations. … For example in the East … they say … if you are miserable, you must have done something wrong in the previous life. Something has gone wrong in your past, you have done some wrong karma; hence you are miserable. Now things are explained, so no one has to suffer. … The whole philosophy of karma is that you have sown already, now you are reaping; you have done, so it is a natural consequence. It consoles you. So nobody is doing anything unjust to you. God is not unjust, fate is not unjust, the world is not unjust, the society is not unjust, it is your own karma.

So what to do? One has to pass through it, and one has to keep one’s equanimity, one’s equilibrium. And don’t do such a thing again, otherwise in the next life you will suffer again. So that is the only thing that can be done: you cannot change the past, but you can still manage the future … a beautiful consolation”.

Osho (1990) Tao: the pathless path New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

 

STEPHEN BATCHELOR

“It is often claimed that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. From a traditional point of view, it is indeed problematic to suspend belief in the idea of rebirth, since many basic notions then have to be rethought. But if we follow the Buddha’s injunction not to accept things blindly, then orthodoxy should not stand in the way of forming an understanding.

“A difficulty that has beset Buddhism from the beginning is the question of what it is to be reborn. Religions that posit an eternal self distinct from the body-mind complex escape this dilemma – the body and mind may die but the self continues. A central Buddhist idea, however, is that no such intrinsic self can be found through analysis or realized in meditation. Such a deep-seated sense of personal identity is a fiction, a tragic habit that lies at the root of craving and anguish. How do we square this with rebirth, which necessarily entails the existence of something that not only survives the death of the body and brain but somehow traverses the space between a corpse and a fertilized ovum?

“Different Buddhist schools have come up with different answers to this question, which in itself suggests their views are based on speculation. Some claim that the force of habit-driven craving immediately reappears in another form of life; others posit various kinds of non-physically based mental consciousness that may spend several weeks before locating a suitable womb.

“The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as ‘karma’. While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted the idea of rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than its cosmological implications. “Karma”, he often said, “is intention” i.e. a movement of the mind that occurs each time we think, speak or act. By being mindful of the process, we come to understand how intentions lead to habitual patterns of behaviour, which in turn affects the quality of our experience. In contrast to the view often taught by religious Buddhists, he denied that karma alone was sufficient to explain the origin of individual experience.

“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty that I do not know. … Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

“If our actions in the world are to stem from what is central in life, they must be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication. Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.”

Stephen Batchelor (1997) Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury

 

 

POEM: CIRCLE OF THE SOUL

A third poet from the collection ‘Moon Poets: Six Pagan poets’ published by Moon Books and edited by Trevor Greenfield. Tiffany Chaney is a poet and artist residing in North Carolina. Her poetry collection Between Blue and Grey won the 2013 Mother Vine Festival Award for Best in poetry. Tiffany can be found on http://www.tiffanychaney.com/

The collection as a whole also includes work by Lorna Smithers, Robin Herne, Romany Rivers, Martin Pallot and Beverley Price.

 

Circle of the Soul

Wake,

wake the witness,

silent Sulis

of the pond.

Pretend the nameless

are named.

Pretend the formless

are framed.

Wake,

wake the witness.

Wait,

until it is your turn

of the wheel.

Satiate

the self with

the making of souls,

until having played

pretend you can fall

asleep again.

Wake, and witness,

so we may recall.

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