contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Wisdom

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

WILLIAM BLAKE: ETERNITY

He who binds himself to a joy

Doth the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

William Blake Complete Writings Oxford University Press, 1972 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)

REFINING MY PURPOSE

My contemplative inquiry is in a dynamic phase, as it refines and clarifies its purpose. Although I have always allowed myself a wide frame of reference, the original inquiry had a firm base in modern Druidry. That changed. My Druid journey will always be part of me. Nothing is lost or discarded. But my centre of gravity shifted. For a while I did not have a centre, until one crystallised a year ago with the fuller sense of what I named as ‘an At-Homeness in a flowing now’.

I thought my inquiry was over, and I stopped blogging for seven months. Then I felt prompted to begin again, I think for two reasons. The first is that I had new sense of inquiry as an ongoing, indefinite process, not something that would end with any single insight or discovery. The second was a sensed need for a stronger container without this becoming rigid or formal. I asked myself how I could give a Sophian Way more specific substance. This is what I have been doing in recent weeks.

I have made a new revision of the ‘About’ section of the blog. Reading it, I think that the first two paragraphs are here to stay. There may be a further evolution of the third, though with the essential direction still in place.

“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. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time this blog became a wider exploration of 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. I find that this experiential discovery has enabled greater presence, healing and peace. It also supports imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

“As I deepen into At-Homeness, I call my path a Sophian Way, understood as a modern Gnostic path drawing on the wisdom of many times and places. I am currently inspired by Douglas’ Harding’s Headless Way, and incorporating it into my life and practice.”

WISDOM’S FAITH

I’m asking myself whether ‘faith’ has any role in my spirituality. I think it may.

At the cognitive level I’m the kind of sceptic who holds questions open and tolerates ambiguity. I admire the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho and his school (1). Like the early Buddhists who Pyrrho met in India, Pyrrhonists steered away from metaphysical propositions. They did not seek ease through right answers, but in a space of contemplative equanimity where uncertainty can be embraced. It gave them a lightness of being. I find this good for my mental life, which is potentially freed from an attachment to views and ideologies that turns them into things – property to be safeguarded or weapons to be deployed. I am also empowered to keep asking questions and to see the value in contrary points of view.

But the cognitive level isn’t everything. At the heart level, I lean into an intuited understanding uncompromisingly spelled out by Douglas Harding : ‘God is indivisible. This is so marvellous because it means the whole of God is where you are – not your little bit of God, but the whole of God. If we resist this, it’s because we are resisting our splendour, our greatness. The wonderful proposition of all the mystics that I know and would care to call real mystics is that the heart of you, the reality of your life, the reality of your being, your real self is the whole of God – not a little bit of that fire but the whole fire”.(2)

That intuition, sometimes concerned to avoid the ‘G’ word and sometimes not, has been with me for much of my life in some form. One of the stronger prompts, almost thirty years ago, was a careful reading of The Mustard Seed (3). Here, the Tantric teacher Osho works through the Gospel of Thomas. I have loved this text ever since to the point of accumulating a number of editions and commentaries. Douglas Harding has a chapter on it in one of his books (4). But the Gospel and its commentators did not persuade me to take this non-dual Gnostic view, and nor have kundalini yoga, sitting meditation, or the Headless Way exercises*. What they have done is given my intuitive sense of knowing room to show itself. That sense of knowing has grown stronger and is now anchored in. Practice is an affirmation and celebration rather than inquiry. It’s not something I want to argue about, and I wouldn’t much mind if I was proved to be metaphysically misguided. It’s just where I’m taking my stand.

The old Gnostics had the phrase Pístis Sophia, retrospectively used to name one of their texts, (5). English translations have varied: ‘Wisdom in Faith’, or ‘Faith in Wisdom’. To many Gnostics, Sophia was a celestial being, so another option is ‘The Faith of Sophia’ (and by extension, presumably) the faith of a devotee. Wisdom says that knowledge doesn’t get us everywhere. An element of faith, which I experience as a kind of permission-giving, or surrender, is needed for this commitment.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry/2019/04/27/pyrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(2) Douglas Harding Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature David Lang, 2015 (edited by David Lang)

(3) Osho The Mustard Seed: Commentaries of the Fifth Gospel of Saint Thomas Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1975

(4) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation

(5) Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel translated and edited by G.R.S Mead Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (first American edition)

www.headless.org/

DOUGLAS HARDING: SOPHIA’S SUITORS

“There once lived a princess called Sophia who was not only charming and incomparably beautiful, but also (true to her name) the very perfection of wisdom. One day, three suitors arrived at her palace – a brave knight, a love-struck poet and a rude swineherd.” (1)

First, Sophia receives the knight and inquires how many dragons he has slain. The answer is “practically none”, but the knight asserts that his sword is of “finest steel” and he vows to undertake the “immense task” of slaying every dragon in the land – all for the love of Sophia. In so doing, he hopes for her favour and blessing as he sets out on this quest to become worthy of her. Sophia gives him her favour and blessing, and off he goes on his strenuous, challenging and time-consuming adventure.

Second, Sophia receives the poet, who offers his “adoration and the poor songs it inspires”. He hopes that this devotion will win his heart. He asks to remain in the palace, so as not to be too far from the princess, whilst also assuring her that he will not “take advantage of this boon and come too near you”. Sophia tells him how much she values his devotion and offers a pleasant room “from whose windows you will sometimes be able to see me walking in the rose-garden”.

Finally, the swineherd bursts in, “admitted by extremely reluctant officials”. He simply blurts out “I want you and nothing else, and I want you now”. Sophia is outraged, comparing him unfavourably with his rivals. She is on the point of throwing him out, when he says: “before you do that, let me tell you something: “your knight is in love with chivalry and dragon hunting, and that’s why he’s happy to wait for you indefinitely. As for your poet, he’s in love with love and his own love-poems, and that’s why he promises to keep a respectful distance. The truth is that both are frightened of you. But true love casts out fear, and I’m not frightened of you, and I claim you right away.”

There is further discussion. Harding’s bold talkative swineherd questions the harmfulness of dragons in and as themselves, as opposed to the way the knight likes to see them. He also says that his devotion surpasses that of the poet, because it is “inseparable from union”. Eventually Sophia agrees to the match, saying: “Marry me now, rude swineherd, and deserve me later”.

This parable favourably contrasts direct path spiritualities with the gradual paths offered by most traditions. It is an affirmation of his own Headless Way (2).

(1) Douglas Harding Sophia’s Three Suitors, Chapter 25 in Look For Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange in 1996)

(2)  www.headless.org/

 

 

AN ENGLISH SOPHIA

It is 1663, less than three years after the restoration of Charles II, together with his Lords and Bishops. There is a nocturnal meeting in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It is mostly attended by radical dissenters, politically defeated but staunch in their religion. The exception is the narrator, who holds a precarious position at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“All eyes in the place, every single person, were focused with extraordinary attention on a dim figure at the front, the only person standing, although as quiet as all the others … How long she had stood like that I do not know; perhaps from the moment she came in, which was now nearly half an hour; I do know that we all sat there for another ten minutes in the most perfect of silence; and a strange experience it was to be so very still and immobile with all others in equal quietude.

“….

“When she did utter, she spoke so softly and sweetly that her words were hard to hear; instead everyone there had to lean forward to catch what she was saying. All the words, set down on paper with my pen, give nothing of my mood, for she entranced us all, bewitched us even, until grown men were crying openly, and women were rocking themselves with expressions of angelic peace such as I have never seen in any church  … Her hands remained clasped in front of her and made no gestures; she scarcely moved at all, and yet out of her mouth and her whole body became balm and honey, freely offered to all …

“She spoke for well over an hour and it was like the finest consort of musicians, as the words flowed and turned and played over us until we too were like sounding boxes, vibrating and resonating with her speech. I have read these words over again. How much I disappoint myself, for the spirit is entirely lacking from them, nor have I in any way managed to encompass the perfect love she spoke, or the calm adoration she evoked in her listeners. I feel, indeed, like a man who wakes from sleep after a wondrously perfect dream, and writes it all down in a frenzy, then finds that all he has on the page are mere words bereft of feeling, as dry and unsatisfying as chaff when the corn is removed.

“’To all men I say, there are many roads which lead to my door; some broad and some narrow, some straight and some crooked, some flat and commodious while others are rough, and pitted with dangers. Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone.

“’I am the bride of the lamb and the lamb itself; neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord have come. I am the sweetness of the spirit and the honey of life. I will be in the grave with Christ and will rise after betrayal. In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil. I say, you wait for the kingdom of heaven, but you see it with your own eyes. It is here and always within your grasp. An end to religion and to sects, throw away your Bibles, they are needed no more: cast out tradition and hear my words instead. My grace and my peace and my mercy and my blessing are upon you.’

“The meeting was over, and it was obvious that the only reason it had assembled was to hear Sarah speak; in that town, and amongst those people, she had a reputation that had already spread far. The merest mention that she might make an utterance was enough to bring men and women – the poor, the rough and those of low breeding – out in all weathers and risk all manner of sanction from the authorities. Like everyone else, I scarcely knew what to do once it had finished, but eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise I must collect my horse and go back to Oxford. In a daze of the most complete peacefulness I walked back to the inn here I had left it and headed home.

“Sarah was a prophetess. Only a few hours earlier the notion would have elicited the utmost scorn from me, for the country had been benighted by such people for years, thrown into the light of day by the troubles in the way that woodlice become visible when a stone is overturned. … A woman prophet was much worse, you might think, even less likely to inspire anything but contempt, yet I have already shown it was not so. Is it not said that the Magdalene preached and converted, and was blessed for it? She was not condemned, nor ever has been, and I could not condemn Sarah either. It was clear to me that the finger of God had touched her forehead, for no devil or agent of Satan can reach into the hearts of men like that. There is always a bitterness in the devil’s gifts, and we know we are deceived, even if we permit the deception. But I could say for a moment only what it was in her words that conveyed such peace and tranquillity, I had the experience of it merely, not the understanding.”

Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost Vintage: 1998

NOTE

I believe that the extract stands on its own, as an imaginative depiction of a form of spiritual experience, individual and collective. However, I have written this note to provide more context and information, and then added a personal insight piece relevant to my own inquiry.

The historical novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is mostly set in the Oxford of the 1660’s, described as “a time and place of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment”. That being the case, it touches on the high politics of the transition from Commonwealth back to Monarchy; the foundation of the Royal Society and a more empirical approach to natural science and medicine; and the rise of new religious currents emphasising a direct relationship with the divine though ecstatic and intuitive means.

The central figure in the novel is Sarah Blundy, a young woman accused of murdering a fellow of New College. The novel is in four sections, each narrated by a male character whose testimony is unreliable to a greater or lesser extent. The one who describes the meeting above is relatively reliable. He also comes closest to Sarah, and her personally burdensome gifts of prophecy and healing.

Although the book has a concern with evidence and the meaning of evidence seen through a later seventeenth century lens, it also has an element of magical realism. Sarah follows a cycle of immaculate conception, a favourable upbringing, a fall into compromised circumstances, the perils of her vocation whilst working as a maid servant, arrest, trial, execution, resurrection and ascension. The last we hear of Sarah, when on a ship bound from Plymouth to New England is that “She simply disappeared one day in full daylight, and without any sound, as though she had been taken up bodily into the heavens”.

Two of the book’s narrators mention a second century Christian movement later declared heretical under the name of Montanism, as a model for Sarah. They specifically identify a doctrine declaring that “in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil and sins no more”. This person could be of any age or gender and would probably  be from a humble background. The movement was founded by three teachers, Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla and their name for themselves was ‘New Prophecy’. They had a literature of their own, later destroyed by the Catholic Church. One remaining fragment from Maximilla’s ‘Oracles’ says that Christ visited her in the form of a woman. A modern expert on Gnosticism, Nicola Denzey Lewis, suggests (1) that they were familiar with two works now recovered as part of the Nag Hammadi collection – Thunder, Perfect Mind and the Trimorphic Protennoia (=triple-formed first thought). Each affirms both a cosmic feminine principle and women’s spiritual leadership in the teeth of opposition and abuse. “The Thunder alludes in paradoxical language to a myth …where Sophia and Eve are the human and divine aspects of one feminine being”. Protennoia is a divine cosmic being (in effect, Sophia with an even more abstract name) who says, “I am the thought that dwells in the Light” She also says, ”I have come the second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them” – incarnating as a what some traditions would call a Christ Sophia, whereas on the first occasion she had come in her masculine form as a Christ Logos (2).

For anyone wanting to look into the re-emergence of similar currents in seventeenth century Protestant culture in England and elsewhere, Caitlin Matthews’ Sophia book (3) provides brief coverage in Chapter 14, The Woman Clothed with the Sun.

(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

(2) Tau Malachi Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006

(3) Caitlin Matthews Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2001 (Revised edition – original edition published by Mandala in 1991)

A PERSONAL INSIGHT

I have personal responses and insights about the Trimorphic Protennoia and its relevance, for me, to Sarah as prophet and Christ Sophia. This work is said to be in part a critique of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, (‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’). The Protennoia places thought before word, and asserts that this thought, the ‘thought that dwells in the light’ contains, and is contained within, every single sentient being in the cosmos. There is no possibility of complete alienation from it, though the illusion of it can be devastating enough. But for St. John, the light comes after the word and shines into a darkness. This light can only be found through the mediation of Jesus Christ. It’s a very different theology, with different implications..

When I read and re-read the account of Sarah’s meeting, I am held by its auditory metaphors, because they are themselves so tactile. I begin with a strong sense of how she builds on the silence and stillness already in the room. It is a fecund stillness and silence, a potent state of latency. She holds and extends this moment.

Then she becomes present with her voice. She is almost inaudible, in one sense. Yet she has the full attention of the meeting. The narrator is impressed by qualities of softness and sweetness and talks of being entranced without clearly hearing a single word. Sarah’s voice has a compelling energetic presence – a voice that is not just a voice but offers a fully embodied sharing. Sara’s utterance is like music, with the same emotional power. It releases that in each person which leans into her speech, and already understands what she is telling them. What is happening is not so much revelation as recollection.

Finally, we do hear the words, which for me are memorable and inspirational even in their plain meaning, without Sarah’s presence.  They are very challenging to followers like hers, being asked to let go of their bibles and religion, so soon after the world and the powers that be have decisively turned against them. Each must find their own path, and refrain from judging others. The message is at once emancipatory and frightening. It is not readily reassuring. The hope is that the experience which Sarah offers will trigger the recollection of their own divine spark, as an inner intuitive knowing, often occluded but never wholly extinguished. .

This story is what it is, and I find it very moving. It also helps me to make sense out of the very dry and obscurantist seeming term Trimorphic Protennoia,- as a three stepped creative movement, demonstrated in Sarah’s own ultimate being and through her ministry. This movement begins in a primordial alive silence becoming aware of itself, through the emergence of a full-bodied voice that connects, to simple, profound and inspirational speech. Each successive state contains the previous ones, and the whole is fully enacted, a true and fresh creation.

ARNE NAESS AS PHILOSOPHICAL VAGABOND

“Naess embodies the spirit of philosophy in its original sense as being a loving pursuit of wisdom. It is a deep exploration of our whole lives and context in pursuit of living wisely. The essence of Socratic inquiry is to know ourselves. From his work on Pyrrhonian scepticism to his … positive statements on pluralism and possibilism, Naess says he is a ‘philosophical vagabond’ or ‘wandering seeker’, what the ancient Greeks called a zetetic’” (1).

In 1968 Arne Naess (1912-2009) published Scepticism (2) two years before resigning as chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo to devote himself to environmental problems. Part of this book focuses on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last recorded Pyrrhonist philosopher in a line going back to Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE).

Pyrrhonists, as described by Sextus Empiricus, neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. As Naess says, the Pyrrhonist philosopher “leaves questions open, but without leaving the question. He has however given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came by peace of mind in another way.” (2)

Naess was not himself a Pyrrhonist, but clearly valued the Pyrrhonist frame of mind. He took something from it into his later work, as is made clear in Alan Drengson’s introduction to Naess’s Ecology of Wisdom (1):

“… there is never one definitive interpretation of philosophical texts; there is never one description of an event and all processes are complex interactions involving changing forces and relations, internal and external. Experience and the processes around us form changing patterns or gestalts. 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 … As a deep questioner and seeker, Naess remains free of dogmatic and monolithic doctrine about the world … [which]  partly explains why he celebrates a movement supported by diverse people with many world views”.

I enjoy this view of inquiry, and feel inspired to carry it forward more consciously in my own work. My sense is that it will bring my inquiry more into the world, without its losing its contemplative core.

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

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

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/

 

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

CULTIVATING VALUES

This post is about practical wisdom – following a Sophian Way in daily life. It reflects my position and priorities at a life-stage where I am less active than in the past, more aware of personal vulnerabilities, yet still with a strong sense of connection and commitment to people and the world.

I am following on from previous posts, a recent one on Ethics and ‘Civilization’ (1) and an older one on Virtues and Vows (2). My language has changed a bit. I am using ‘values’ rather than ‘ethics’ or ‘virtues’. I am thinking in terms of ‘commitments’ rather than vows, with the commitments being commitments to ‘cultivate’ a quality or behaviour. Hence, I say “I will cultivate compassion …” rather than “May I be compassionate …”. I find this language more realistic, more down to earth. The older phrasing suggests that I can make a vow in a wand-waving manner and guarantee compassion as a simple act of will. The new phrasing merely states that I will be on my own case. I will work with my compassion. I will cultivate it so that it can grow in the rough and tumble of life and teach me compassioning in the flowing moment.

I am working with four commitments, each of which is expanded with brief commentary.

  • I will cultivate compassion towards myself, others and the wider world. This includes ruthless compassion – I want to distinguish compassion from sentimentality and appeasement. Compassion seeks what is truly best for everybody, including rude awakenings.
  • 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, like connecting, being active, taking notice, continuous learning and giving (3).
  • I will cultivate a life of abundance in simplicity. The dance between these two apparently contrasting 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 discernment. Discernment is the ability to judge well, but without the hard edge often conveyed by ‘judgement’. It tempers openness and edits creativity.

Beyond the commitments themselves, I have a set of value words to work with: compassion, health, well-being, abundance, simplicity, openness, creativity, discernment – and cultivation. I am claiming them as aspects of practical wisdom and as guides. Part of the work is to develop my understanding and application of these words in the light of experience and reflection. Although I am making use of abstract nouns, the process of working with values – if it is to mean anything – is dynamic and developmental.

The Sophian insight is about cultivating qualities rather than simply declaring them. This matters more than specific selection and listing. Wisdom, to be effectively wise, needs to make a difference.

  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/
  2. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/virtues-and-vows/
  3. These are explained in detail at adrianharris.org/blog/2018/06/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

ATHENE: PRACTICAL WISDOM

In Greek tradition, Athene is Goddess of Wisdom. Hers is a pragmatic wisdom – “good counsel, thinking through, or practical foresight – the capacity to reflect” (1) In a contest for the rulership of Attica, Poseidon shows that he rules the waves; Athene constructs the ship to ride them. Poseidon provides a horse; Athene bridles it and builds a chariot. Poseidon makes a salt spring gush up from the depths of the earth; Athene offers the carefully cultivated olive. Athene blends creative imagination with dexterity and skill. “She teaches weaving, wool-working, carpentry and all manner of handicrafts whose success depends on holding in the mind an image of the end”.

She also combines her Wisdom role with a Warrior one, where “even in war, she is controlled, in contrast to Ares’ savage and indiscriminate rage, and she easily defeats him in combat. She comes to the side of Achilles when he needs self-discipline, and to Odysseus when he needs strategy and foresight. Here, in the Iliad, Achilles is deliberating whether to reach for his sword in his quarrel with Agamemnon:

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses

and was drawing from his scabbard the great sword, Athene descended

from the sky.

The goddess standing behind Peleus’ son caught him by the fair hair,

appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.

Achilles in amazement turned about, and straightway

knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“Significantly it is in a moment of reflection occasioned by his conflicting impulses that Athene appears, as the epiphany of his victory over unbridled instinct…. The quality of restraint is the value she embodies, and her ‘flashing eyes’ are the emblem of a lucid intelligence that can see beyond the immediate satisfaction.

The word metis was linked to this kind of wisdom, and it was highly valued. With metis, a person could chop wood better than through strength alone; pilot a ship through storms in the dark; or win a hotly contested chariot race. However, the word could also have overtones of shrewdness or craftiness or thinking too much on an event. Odysseus was known as polymetis (he of many counsels), with both Athene and Hermes to guide him.

At first glance, this seems a long way from the world of Sophia (Hokhmah) in Jewish and Gnostic tradition. But there are certain parallels. Three years ago (2), I wrote, “I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother”. As an Olympian, Athene’s formal relation to nature is ambivalent, but she certainly has worldly concerns. Whilst also not locked into the role of earth mother, she too is willing to support and mentor humans. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. Athene, too, in a more pragmatic way, asks for an increase in awareness and a less impulsive response to experience. Sophia represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. Athene is highly creative, and has her own wisdom, here based on skill, inventiveness and a capacity to be intentional and strategic. Although universal love and compassion feature little in the Homeric world, she is loyal to those she cares about and engaged with their fortunes. As a lens on how contemplation informs creativity and action, the archaic Athene extends and enriches my understanding of the Sophian archetype.

  1. Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sophia-hohmah/
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