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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

The Fundamentalist

For source of image see link

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O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

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Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

The Fundamentalist

For source of image see link

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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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