contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Virtue Ethics

VALUES FOR 2020

I want to give my contemplative inquiry for the next year a strong focus and intent. This includes re-stating the values in which it is grounded, updated after some reflection over the last twelve moths.

I  use the word values where others might choose ethics or virtues. I make commitments rather than resolutions or vows. These commitments commit me to ‘cultivate’ a quality or behaviour. Hence, for example, I say “I will cultivate lovingkindness”. I cannot guarantee acting with lovingkindness as a simple act of will. But I can cultivate this quality and help it grow in the rough and tumble of life. I would like lovingkindness to be my default response in the heat of the given moment.

This year I will work with four commitments, listed below with brief commentaries.

  • I will cultivate lovingkindness towards myself, others and the wider world. I find the Buddhist metta meditation  a good working method for this (1). Lovingkindness is different to what I mean by love, more in the territory of good will. Love involves my spontaneous natural affections and needs to be free.
  • I will cultivate positive health and well-being, within whatever constraints may apply. This includes work with diet and exercise, and resiliency factors for mental and emotional health, such as connecting, being active, taking notice, and continuous learning and giving (2).
  • I will cultivate a life of abundance in simplicity. The dance between these terms creates, for me, a specific quality of richness. More widely, it contributes to living lightly on the earth.
  • I will cultivate openness, creativity and wisdom, learning how better to understand these qualities and how to enact them. I am curious about how they can work together.

The commitments give me a set of value words to work with: lovingkindness, health, well-being, abundance, simplicity, openness, creativity, wisdom and cultivation. Part of the work is to develop my understanding and application of such terms in the light of experience and reflection. Although I am making use of abstract nouns, the process of working with values is dynamic and subject to revision. This post is a record of where I stand on the brink of the 2020s.

(1) We extend lovingkindness to beings in this order: ourselves; a person who has benefited us; a person about whom we have no strong feelings; an ‘enemy’ or person with whom we experience difficulties; all beings without exception. We want to be able to say, congruently: may I/you/we be free of danger; happy; healthy; live with ease. – See: Sharon Salzberg & Joseph Goldstein Insight Meditation Correspondence Course Work Book Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004 (First published 1996)

(2) These are explained in detail at adrianharris.org/blog/2018/06/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

XR STORIES

This re-blog, from The Earthbound Report, presents three stories from the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in London. Written from an insider perspective, they illustrate the movement culture that XR seeks to model.

Three little XR stories you won’t read in the papers — The Earthbound Report

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/

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

HOW TO FLOURISH

In an earlier post (1) I began a discussion about personal vows, and how they support of our flourishing. The key is to identify specific intentions about how we want to live, to declare them and then to work with them. In this context, it is important that they are personal and not connected to a third party or cause. We decide them for ourselves. We interpret them ourselves. We monitor them ourselves. It is an inner authority that gives them their power.

Later (2) I discussed the ancient Greek concept of ‘virtue ethics’ as a rationale for this approach. I would probably not use this label for myself. Modern English gives ‘virtue’ as slightly pious and solemn ring. It suggests the possibility of presenting an inauthentic front, not present in the earliest understandings. These concerned crafting a life with self-awareness and cultivating desired qualities and skills. The emphasis is on process and practice

In both posts I described personal work using this method. I have now completed a set of five vows, which for me seems like the maximum to work with. They are notes to myself as I move through time and chance, enough to set directions, but not enough to regulate specific conduct in specific situations. The core idea is to improve my own quality of life and that of others.

 

May I be mindful, open hearted and creative

May I honour and enjoy the gift of life, in my sensing, feeling, thinking, and intuition

May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others

May I experience abundance in simplicity

May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as through supporting larger projects

 

I believe in these vows, whilst knowing that I will not fulfil them all the time, or in the fullest measure. Yet I do expect them to make a difference. I have already opened myself to continuous learning about what the key value words mean in practice. How do I recognize, in sensory, behavioural and social terms: my mindfulness, open heartedness, creativity, honouring, enjoyment, love, compassion, abundance, simplicity and welfare?

If I am not actively in process with them, these words can fade into pompous rhetoric. Worse still, they could become ammunition in a form of virtue signaling. Meanings themselves may vary in different contexts, and one aspect of ‘creativity’, will be sensitivity to different circumstances, and flexibility within them.

I have been working with personal vows for a couple of months now, long enough to get used to the process and develop what seems like the full set using the best language. Although these vows draw on my life in both Druid and Buddhist settings, they are personal. I do not see them as belonging either to a Druid or a Buddhist path. They are about mindful living in a re-enchanted world They are my personal guide on how to flourish.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/virtues-and-vows/

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

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

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

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

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