contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Truth Claims

WISDOM AND NON-VIOLENCE

“The nature of reality is multidimensional and creative. … Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music or art” – Alan Drengson’s introduction to Arne Naess’ Ecology of Wisdom (1).

Arne Naess (1912-2009) was chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway, before resigning to devote himself to environmental problems and pioneer the field of deep ecology. For him, philosophy is deep exploration of our whole lives and context, “in a loving pursuit of living wisely” (1). His book Scepticism (2), is focused on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last known known representative of a philosophy school founded by Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE). Pyrrho himself spent time with Jains (gymnosophists = naked philosophers) and, probably, Buddhists, on an extended visit to India, and was influenced by them.

Pyrrhonists neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated an attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. This turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. Pyrrhonists left questions open, without leaving the question. Naess says of Sextus: “he has given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came to peace of mind in another way”.

In his account of the Jains, Philip Carr-Gomm (3), shows how they might have influenced Pyrrho. Jain ethics is grounded in 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 the doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism, or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as complementing and completing each other, with non-absolutism as the intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment. The Pyrrhonist tradition, and its influence on Naess, seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism with the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukkha (suffering or dis-ease).

The approach – which I sometimes lose sight of myself – allows me to avoid what the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor (4) calls “the language game ‘In Search of Truth'”, where “one is … tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast’. (4)

I have written on this topic at earlier points in my inquiry*. I have come back to it now, because I want to refine my understanding of ‘peace’ as a quality of inquiry. The liturgy of my daily Druid practice asks for ‘peace throughout the world’. How might I better demonstrate peace in the inquiry process itself? Inquiry processes, and even contemplative spiritualities, can include their own kinds of dogmatism and aggression. I have work to do, wisdom work, hopefully gentle to self and others, in this domain.

(1) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(2) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1968

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

(4) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

*See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/25/04/19/spiritual-truth-claims/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/03/05/19/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/11/06/19/greg-goode-and-joyful-irony/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/19/01/20/scepticism-openness-and-flow/

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021). Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

CONTEMPLATING BELIEF

Spiritual commitment – faith in the path, and the perspectives underpinning it – need not depend on received understandings of ‘belief’. Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor discusses this issue below.

“The views that I hold about the things that really matter to me – meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty – are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.

“Most Buddhists throughout Asia are and always have been polytheists. They believe in the existence of a range of spirits and gods whose worlds intersect with our own. These entities do not have a merely symbolic existence: they are real beings with consciousness, autonomy and agency … But since many of these spirits are fickle beings like ourselves, they cannot ultimately be trusted. On formally becoming a Buddhist, one ‘takes refuge’ in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, thereby renouncing reliance on those beings. But the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished. They continue to play a role in one’s personal and social life. This is the thought-world one finds throughout the Pali Canon. Siddattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalised them. He may have mocked their conceits, but he acknowledged their presence. At times they even functioned as inspirational voices that prompted him to act.

“However tempting it is for me to dismiss the existence of gods and spirits as outdated nonsense, I need to be aware of the equally tenuous foundations of my own beliefs. If challenged I would be incapable of persuading someone who does not already share my view of the universe or of human life that my beliefs about them are true. I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape – but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed in these on much the same ground as he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of distinguished scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claimed to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth claims were no more or less reasonable than his.

“Following the example of William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, I have relinquished the idea that a ‘true’ belief is one that corresponds to something that exists ‘out there’ or is beyond reality somewhere. For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. Siddattha Gotama’s Four Noble Truths are ‘true’ not because the correspond to something real somewhere, but because, when put into practice, they can enhance the quality of your life. … What draws me to Buddhism is not because it has a more convincing explanation of the nature of reality than other religions, but that it offers a methodology which might actually work in addressing the question of suffering.” (1)

(1) Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011

SPRING CLARITY

Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.

The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.

On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).

‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.

When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..

(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

(2) http://www.headless.org/

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/

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