Contemplation in a World of Action.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Thomas Merton-Confessions of a Guilty Bystander

I have a long-standing interest in the role of contemplation and contemplative practices in education and with the development of the person as distinct from the individual through a process described by Thomas Merton as Sapiential Education, meaning the cultivation of wisdom and the whole person through the direct experience of the nature of reality in its complementary aspects of multiplicity and unity. No education can be considered holistic if at its roots, it doesn’t allow for and actively engage with these apparently dualistic apprehensions of reality or with the triune experience of every human life as a totality of mind, body, and spirit.

In his work on the Integral Self, Ken Wilbur draws an important distinction between state and stage change. We can consider a state change as something temporary and impermanent that we move towards, whilst a stage change is something integrated and foundational- a ‘level of consciousness’ from which we move into the world and through which we ‘live and move and have our being’. This movement between states and through stages can be considered in the context described by Plotinus, who posited that we live in a world that is at least superficially dualistic in nature, apprehended as both a multiplicity and a unity. Stage development represents an increasingly nuanced understanding of this apparent polarity to the point at its highest levels, in which the seeming duality is experienced as a single or total field of awareness with different but complementary aspects or expressions. The multiplicity arises out of the unitive, we experience for example the natural world as a theophany-the divine spark revealed in all creation-and both are necessary to account for our actual experience of reality. Every religious tradition makes the point that in one sense the experience of our life in ‘ordinary’ consciousness is predicated on a tragic case of mistaken identity. The person I normally take myself to be, the busy, anxious, little ‘I’, so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues, is never even remotely the whole of who I am, and to seek fulfilment of my life at this level, is ultimately to pursue a narrow and limited-one might say futile, expression of the ‘all that I am.’

In considering the idea of Sapiental Education as conceived by Thomas Merton, we must engage in a shift of focus from the accumulation of knowledge about things- understood as our rational comprehension of the world of forms, typical of normal education in the west,  to the cultivation of wisdom, conceived as the direct apprehension of the phenomenon behind the phenomena, the artificer behind the art, the First principles, including a deep connection with the eternal present which is the still point of the turning word, the barely conceivable ineffable face of the unitive principle giving rise to form. Rather than accumulation, this process of learning often involves a considerable degree of emptying and letting go of previously held views, as the Taoists, amongst others, appreciated very well. In Platonistic terms we recognise the truth of the allegory of the cave in which the shadows on the cave wall are both differentiated-relatively unreal figures in the corporeal or sensible realm- immediately connected to their archetypal eidos in the intelligible realm as sign to referrant.

Our experience of the world as dualistic is a function in part, of our attention as we experience it within the wider context of our upbringing, formal education, and cultural influences-our belief systems about the nature of reality. In modern western cultures predicated on the unchallenged tenets of scientific materialism, attention is understood primarily as the means, by which we (I) connect subjects with objects. The basic operating logic assumes a dualistic position as the fundamental truth based on observation, experimentation, and measurement.

 From the dualistic or constructivist perspective common to the west, I experience myself as a unique and discreet being, separate from everything that lies outside me. To the extent that this understanding is experienced as real in an absolute sense, I establish a sense of myself in time as discreet and unique, with a particular history, with gifts, aptitudes, abilities and skills and the world outside I experience as more or less friendly, or hostile, based on my formative and later experiences-the story I tell myself about my life and the world. In this process I can function well to the extent that I can fit in to or manipulate the collective paradigm that dictates how I should or could show up, to be a ‘success’, or a ‘failure’, in the eyes of the world. The world itself is experienced from this standpoint as a collective rather than a community and I am first and foremost, an individual rather than a person-a small part of the atomised world.

Genuine holistic action from this perspective is impossible other than as a theory. We may for example engage in ‘good works’ such as acting towards another with ‘compassion’ but it will be transactional-really charity or pity by another name, based on a sense of lack or superiority rather than equanimity which is the basis of true compassion, arising from a subjective sense of a fullness of being, and it is liable to be withdrawn if certain tacit ‘agreements’ aren’t fulfilled in the bargain.

Traditionalism and the perennial philosophy tells us that this ordinary sense of self represents, at best, a partial apprehension of reality, experienced exclusively within the locus of the multiplicity-the maya, to use a Hindu term, meaning illusion, or better understood, the dance of life. In this context we inevitably live out of what Thomas Merton described as the ‘false self insofar as we live only partially in an ever changing world bounded by space-time.

The false self sees the world, sociologically and psychologically  solely from the viewpoint of I, me, and mine, often in a context of some degree of lack or entitlement and represents what we could call the ‘unexamined life’. Beneath the surface of daily conscious activity there lie a cluster of ‘energy centres’ that are formed and informed typically, by our early life experiences. We can call them our reactive tendencies, usually hidden from view in the unconscious and clustered around specific dynamics of need, survival and support, esteem and affection and power and control. As these tendencies and patterns develop and deepen throughout our early and later life they begin, if ignored, to subtly define and guide our choices and behaviours and to the extent that they remain unconscious, they will show up as (often irrational) reactions in the face of certain demands placed on us by the external world, felt as attachments and aversions-what we like and seek more of, and what we dislike and seek to avoid or push away in order to feel ‘happy’. In part at least, sapiential education represents a pathway to a fuller understanding of ourselves, throwing light on these tendencies over time, uprooting them through various practices, allowing for the cultivation of more stable, congruent, and nuanced behaviours concomitant with the emergence of a more responsive, genuine, authentic, or true sense of self.

Part of the process of change has to do with the way in which we use our attention. We learn to pay attention in different ways. Typically, in a subject-object oriented world, in its basic form, our attention is grabbed by objects. Modern western culture is predicated on systems that grab our attention in very sophisticated ways, over and over again, thereby disconnecting us from ourselves, from our own centre of discernment, leaving us in a state of near permanent reactivity- a vicious cycle that both feeds and is fed by our false self, energy centres as described above.

According to the fourteenth century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, there are four basic stages of human development. The lower active stage represents our early-stage formation, what we might call the unreflective but essentially moral life-in which, as has been described, we fit in and do as we are told and contribute to society and culture as we feel we should for our own benefit or maybe for the greater good, subject to the constraints of the patterns and pressures of our own unconscious reactivity.

The second and third stages which blend, one into the other in the Cloud, are the higher active and lower contemplative stages, representing a stage change, often triggered by some form of defeat, loss, disruption, suffering or pain, significant enough to overwhelm our stubborn, deep rooted egoic position towards greater self-reflection. At this stage we find ourselves concerned with deeper and harder questions; Who am I? what is my life for? Why do I do what I do? What gives my life meaning? How could I serve or make a difference? Why is there suffering? Does God exist? We begin to discover here that the bigger concerns of life-such as the meaning of life itself, and other concerns like love, death, suffering and the infinite, cannot be answered with the rational mind alone. At this stage, unless we give up in despair or distract ourselves into oblivion, we will engage with new practices to learn to function at a new level of consciousness. Perhaps it starts with an exploration of meditation to alleviate stress or joining a yoga class to rejuvenate our tired bodies but with time the initial impulse to move the furniture around may deepen further and become a genuine enquiry into life’s purposes-a process that has a genuine bearing on our stage of development as distinct from the state changes that add to the fund of our ‘experiences’ but  do not really trouble the paradigm from which we make sense of the world.

In the Christian tradition a distinction is made between two approaches to change that are relevant to the development of the contemplative life: the kataphatic and the apophatic. In brief, the kataphatic has to do with the use of our faculties-including the reason, will, imagination and memory, to elicit and support the life changes we hope to make. In these processes, the subject-object dichotomy remains intact, and the work of change has to do with a deepening of self-understanding including a growing awareness of our reactive tendencies and access to subtler modes of knowing such as the affective, imaginal and intuitive, in support of cognitive reasoning. As part of the process of change we may develop a different relationship with attention itself, moving from the position in which attention is held by the object which grabs us, to holding attention as the subject, withdrawing it intentionally from objects and, as in many meditation practices based on concentration or awareness, learning to place it consciously on specific objects such as the flow of thoughts, the breath, or a mantra. The seat of ‘I’ remains but through a variety of psycho-spiritual practices we can also cultivate a ‘witness’ position that can see and reflect on itself in ways that are no longer simply reactive, allowing for the movement towards wholeness (healing) to begin and to allow for greater choice in the moment.

It is in considering the development of the higher stages of consciousness, the formation of the Integral Self or Self- Transforming mind, to use two possible frames, that we discover the limits of the kataphatic approach, discovering that it is insufficient for further growth, beyond a certain point of development. In terms of the Cloud of Unknowing, the higher contemplative self (awareness of the Self without qualifications) simply cannot be known through kataphatic principles. In mystical terms, one cannot get beyond the purgative (false) and illuminative (self-reflective) stages to the place of union or unitive awareness, without radically shifting the mode of approach-experiencing metanoia or a turning around; there must be a dying to the self, specifically to the dominance of the head as the mode of knowing self and world intellectually, the relinquishing of the centre of I, Me and Mine as the only way of being present to the world, in favour of a thoroughly or radically (is in root) new orientation. The apophatic approach-also called the negative way by St John of the Cross, is not based on the operation of the faculties, nor is it based on the directing of attention towards specific objects in a controlled manner. Rather, counter-intuitively perhaps, in an opposite gesture, the process moves us towards self-emptying or kenosis-towards the experience of what psychologists call stable non-dual awareness or objectless awareness-in Hindu it is called a-dvaita, ‘not-two’. In religious terms this is called resting in the Presence of God or in the Divine Presence- the experiential apprehension of the holistic universe directly- at once transcendent and immanent, macrocosmic and microcosmic, surpassing all theories of holism in favour of the felt experience of the holistic universe itself in its fullness and plenitude- a place, as the Christian-Hindu mystic Bede Griffiths would call it- of unity in distinction as represented perfectly by Wolfgang Smith’s ‘cosmic icon.’

In Thomas Merton’s terms, sapiential education has to do with the complete transformation of the individual from the false to the true self, that is, into a person, which would lead, as he saw it, to the transformation of the Collective into Community. For him this was always the basis of real education and he hoped it would be, ‘part of everybody’s normal equipment’ as he put it. Personal formation is not selfish or self-centred because it depends on the cultivation of a sense of interdependence and relatedness both with other human beings and with the living world.

 In cultivating this stage of deeper contemplative awareness, much is made of silence. There is as Martin Laird put it, ‘a silence that has no opposite.’ In contemplative terms, there are two distinct kinds of silence we can attend to fruitfully. The first, called ‘free’ silence, has to do with our relationship with the natural world. We experience that silence when we walk in nature and apprehend the ‘theophany’-the living spark of the divine in all of nature, the living world as the sensible sign of the hidden referrant-sensing its intimate interrelationship with our own life-a case in point of unity in distinction. Our mind is free to relax, wander and play and in these circumstances, we often experience profound connection and peace (also awe, wonder and astonishment)-what I often call, the experience of our outer sanctuary. There are places we go that heal and hold us because we sense directly, our unity with the living earth, on that mountain, by that river, in that place, wherever it is-the sacred geography of our life.

A second silence is what is called interior or intentional silence. This I refer to as the inner sanctuary. This silence typically feels like ‘work’ because it rarely comes easily and is generically called meditation or contemplation and forms the basis of inner practice at the higher stages of consciousness. Silence can be cultivated in both kataphatic and apophatic forms. Contemplation in the apophatic sense of ‘beholding the still centre’ and of letting go (self-emptying) or hearkening is a fundamental practice for cultivating higher stage levels of awareness as described above and every tradition attests to this point as simply essential. It is to develop a moment-by-moment presence to the ‘all that is’ cultivating the capacity to hold the tension described as multiplicity and unity simultaneously, to live on the flashing wheel so to speak, yet ever grounded in the still centre of the world. For Thomas Merton ‘The real freedom is to be able to come and go from the centre and to do without anything that is not immediately connected to that centre’

In the epigraph to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, we read Heraclitus. The centre is common to all, but Men live as though they have their own centre. The task of radical higher stage development lies in the deepening experience of the common centre without losing the sense of distinction- to apprehend the still point or nunc stans which is always present, eternal and never changing, which is the seat of our and every consciousness existing beyond the limitations of time and space and ever beyond the reach of the rational intellect.  We can learn to enter it in any moment because it is always present within us- immanent and transcendent-we enter through the ‘narrow gate’ called eternal now. Apprehension of the quivering aliveness of each moment is the work of contemplative practices and lies at the heart of the art of re-cognition, of remembering who and what we always are at heart. It does not negate or seek to escape the world of things but right sizes our participation in the outer world in a wider, universal context. It is the eye of the needle through which we pass, dying to life whilst in life, awake to life as it is, moment by moment, gratuitously willing to be re-born into a different stage of consciousness. It is the great transformation everywhere present in the world, the breaking open of the seed buried in the earth, or the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly.

 The real spiritual life is, as I understand it, a life lived in ‘right relationship’- that is to say with mind, body and spirit engaged and working in unison, fully embodied, in the world of time and space-the necessary conditions for experience- yet with a certain detachment (neither attachment or indifference) from the drama. We learn to act with sincerity in the world without taking things too seriously- a distinction that Alan Watts wisely named. Only through time, time is conquered, says TS Eliot; we come to know the eternal and the infinite only through the experience of our life in time and space, the very exact conditions of the corporeal world, but we must not get lost in the endless distractions and noise of the day, nor must we get misled by the false promise- of the inevitability of wisdom as a given entitlement bestowed on us simply because we have had a long life. We must exchange false and illusory expectations for what is real and true, even though the real is often-as TS Eliot put it, new and shocking in every moment. Those who live only in time will only die, he tells us; the houses all go under the sea and the dancers all go under the hill. There is no end to the endless wailing, and we should take note of that as we deepen our own perspective.

In Four Quartets TS Eliot called Love the ‘intolerable shirt of flame’. ‘Who then devised this torment?’ He asks in Little Gidding. ‘Love’ is the answer given. The work of transformation has, I suspect, much to do with the intolerable shirt of flame, with love. It is, suggests Eliot, quoting the Cloud of Unknowing only ‘with the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling’ that we shall be able to continue our exploration. And the end of all our exploring? Will be ‘to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’-which is to say, to experience our divine nature in the world- that with which we entered the world-our intimation of immortality-to experience it again, here, and now in this life and in this death-as Eliot described it- ‘a lifetimes death in love’.

There is an Eros to life, and it has been said that it is through love as Eros that we humans come to know God as it is through love as Agape that God comes to know us. At its heart what calls and draws us forwards then, is nothing other than Love. Love is the highest stage and expression of life in both the forms of multiplicity and unity. As we have seen, in the Platonic sense, we are told that what we experience at the level of multiplicity-ordinary consciousness- is in fact an imperfect image-a partial reality of the truth hidden in unitive reality, it is the art but not the artificer- an imago only though the two and connected in every moment. Yet, though temporal love may be imago to divine Love, as with all things made manifest on earth, we should not imagine the two unconnected or the lesser less important, because love is experienced by us in the world in all our passions and compassions for the world, for ourselves and for others and it is extraordinary, beautiful, and terrible for all of that.

 Thomas Merton once experienced this love at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, the sudden and shocking unveiling of the immeasurable splendour of the world and the unity with others that is our birthright gift, so often hidden from our hearts, experienced for Merton as a life changing moment guiding the further cultivation of a profound gnosis and wisdom  that informed all his future actions in the world, an apprehension that might inform our own, give us courage in our own quest for the real, underwritten in grace by a passion and compassion that is always real. Each of us must make this journey in our own way which is in itself, commendable-the most tremendous act of faith.

And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

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In the midst of something living

The wish to possess all under heaven and control it

I see this has no end

Because all under Heaven is the Numinous vessel

It cannot be controlled

Those who try spoil it

Those who grasp lose it- Tao Te Ching 29

I have been leafing through some Taoist writings of late and so by way of taking a bearing for this essay I opened my copy of the I Ching and received hexagram 25, No Error, which essentially has to do with the nature of timing. The commentary concludes,

The way to be free from error is to act in a manner that is appropriate to the time

 I have a natural sympathy with Taoist philosophy which may in part be accounted for by the fact that I am a market gardener and live much of my life outdoors. I see the traces and patterns of which the Taoists’ speak everywhere every day first-hand in the landscape and thus philosophically, the tenets of Taoism chime directly with my immediate experience. It’s hardly surprising perhaps that this be the case since the Taoist system has ancient agrarian roots and uses seasonal and elemental metaphors and references to the natural world a good deal as a means of elucidating its understanding of reality.

Thus, we read for example in the Tao Te Ching verse 25;

Man models himself after the Earth

The Earth models itself after Heaven;

The Heaven models itself after Tao;

Tao models itself after Nature.

To follow the Course on its meandering way we are told, is to follow nature’s inherent patterns as they unfold moment by moment, between ‘Heaven and Earth’. Wisdom in action thus understood, might be conceived, and measured by our willingness to engage fully in any given moment in the naturally occurring hierarchical relationship that exists between Man, Earth, Heaven, Tao, and Nature wherein we encounter as a living process, the explicit difference and implicit sameness of these different forms, a myriad of expressions, appearing as it were, out of the formless and disappearing into the unchanging in a constant ebb and flow. By attending consciously to these patterns (the warp and weft, rising and falling, veiling, and unveiling of matter in and out of the immaterial) in their cyclical, seasonal, dynamic movements it is, say the Taoists, possible to act in a timely or providential way and in so doing, in following the Tao or Course faithfully, we render it possible to avoid the error of acting outside the inherent flow of things as they unfold in time and according to the times.

Summarising the character of Tao, Lin Yutang writes enigmatically;

Tao is the mother of all things; it cannot be named or predicated; it manifests itself in form and disappears again in formlessness; it does not act; it does not talk; it is the fathomless and inexhaustible source of all life; it is strictly impersonal. In addition, it is impartial, it is immanent, and it operates in cycles by the principle of reversion which causes the levelling of all opposites, making alike success and failure, strength and weakness, life and death and so forth.

There is a Chinese word that has something loosely to do with notions of right timing, something closely related to acting with ‘no error.’ The word is ‘Li’ and it means various things including guideline, coherence, pattern, the way things fit together, the sense made by things and the how and why of things. It is commonly translated as ‘Principle’ but maybe the most vivid rendering of li is organic pattern. We can understand organic pattern to mean for example the natural markings in a piece of jade, the grain in wood, the patterns of clouds or the fibre in muscle. As an example of Li,I think immediately of a huge oak tree that grows a mile or so from here. The oak tree is an expression of the quality of Li, in-form; its bark is patterned in this way, its overall shape and proportion are entirely Li. Li is what a thing displays without effort when it is entirely and naturally itself. It evokes another Chinese word, Ziran– meaning nature, otherwise described as something being ‘so in itself or ‘self-same’. Whatever bears this quality of pattern is absolutely natural or, in Daoist thought, ‘Heavenly,’ and what does not is something else-something manipulated away from its origin, often described in Daoist literature as ‘human’.

The River God once asked Ruo of the Northern Sea to explain the difference between the Heavenly and the Human;

‘That cows and horses have four legs is the Heavenly. The bridle around the horse’s head and the ring through the cow’s nose are the Human. Hence it is said, do not use the Human to destroy the Heavenly, do not use the purposive to destroy the fated’

Considering the natural tension that arises between the heavenly and the human (the original and the manipulated) we might consider what it means to act in a way appropriate to the times we are in in ways that ‘bring no error.

I began this reflection with the I Ching and the issue of timing. In his commentary on verse 25 of the Tao Te Ching Lin Yutang writes,

All order is born of a principle and all rise and decay are interrelated. When something reaches a limit, then it reverses its direction. When the end is reached the beginning begins’

In this way of thinking my assumption here is that we might well consider the times we are in as being a time of reversion or return. In so many ways it seems, we have reached the limits of what is possible for our human project as currently devised and thus some kind of return seems inevitable. This being naturally and inevitably so, (in the sense that winter follows autumn) the Taoist might well ask what else there is to be done at this time other than to accept the fact and follow the flow of its inevitable course downward. There is a natural flow to the times which we may attend or ignore, but that it is so, despite our thinking, is the point at hand. A river in flood is what it is, whether we wish it or otherwise. To swim with or against the current is our choice-we might call this free-will-which itself demands the virtue or skill we apply to our current situation which we could call, in sympathy with the Taoist view, the fate of our birth and the specific times we have been born into. What is auspicious follows on from what is inauspicious, and visa versa, and we can act accordingly if we are sensitive enough to do so. To discern whither the current is going is the required skill, to grasp our predicament and to understand the forces that are at play here and now and to adjust our actions accordingly. We stand here in western terms with Heraclitus and recognise a universal truth; Panta Rei-everything flows.

Turning again to the Tao Te Ching, we read in verse 36;

He who is to be made to dwindle (in power)

Must first be caused to expand

He who is to be weakened

Must first be made strong

He who is to be laid low

Must first be exalted to power

He who is to be taken away from

Must first be given

This is the subtle light.

To act in sympathy or harmony with the subtle light is to follow the principle of Li-to follow the guidelines as they make sense now, understanding that whatever is occurring, is the inevitable fruit of what has preceded it in the way that winter follows autumn. The fruit of being exalted to power is to be laid low.

To be able to engage in activity appropriate to the moment is to acknowledge the veracity of the universal principle of polarity best understood in Taoist terms as Yang-Yin or respectively positive/negative, light/dark, life/death, strong/weak, firm/yielding, rising/falling -which offers a particular quality of guidance for action and non-action that is more subtle than the stance of mere opposition commonly adopted in the west. In Taoist thought, the polarities outlined above move dynamically and are subject to the principle, in Chinese, of hsiang sheng– meaning mutual arising or inseparability-which states that one pole cannot and never could exist without the other in the same way that being arises out of non-being and returns, ‘as sound arises out of silence and as light comes from space.’ The seed of darkness resides in the light and visa-versa. Life itself exists always at some point in between the poles. Thus, it is said by the Taoists, from this position, that ‘east opposes west but each relies on the other for its existence.’

Thus, we read again in Tao Te Ching verse 2;

When everyone knows beauty as beautiful there is already ugliness;

When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil.

To be and not to be arise mutually

Difficult and easy are mutually realised

Long and short are mutually contrasted

High and low are mutually posited

Before and after are in mutual sequence

Reading the Taoist position as expounded here, we might conclude that in times of reversion, whilst, it may feel counter intuitive and even impractical, given our extraordinary tendency towards hyper-active problem solving in the world-it might be advisable (auspicious) to pause, to slow down, to stop and actually ‘do nothing’-prior to further action-ie, take stock of the way things are and to better sense the way they naturally want to be, in a full and comprehensive sense, since reversion requires this and it requires that we look at our own situation first since it is here-maybe only here- that we can assume some genuine responsibility for the ways things will in fact, unfold.

In making a bridge between eastern and western thought it is notable that Taoist philosophy was of the greatest importance to the Swiss psychoanalyst CG Jung. This is important since at heart Jung’s deep conviction was that one should make sense of one’s life within the cultural and spiritual milieu of one’s birth. Jung was a European and as such, despite the unpropitious circumstances, he dedicated his own life’s work to the revival of a meaningful western psychology that might counter the terrible schism he saw writ large in the western society of his birth and which he depicted as a devastating and fateful break between what he called the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths.

In formulating and developing his remarkable body of work over several decades, it is hard to over-estimate the understanding Jung gained through his study of other cultures including those of India, Africa, North America, and China. Of central importance to his work on alchemy which he understood to be of the utmost importance to the European psyche was the Taoist text, the Secret of the Golden Flower given to him by Richard Wilhelm. His commentary on Wilhelm’s text is extremely illuminating and demonstrates the way in which Taoist thought touched the very core of his own experience both personally and clinically.

Jung held that the realisation of the Self, through the process of what he called individuation was ultimately best understood as a sacred marriage, a heiros gamos of opposing yet complementary forces always at play in the psyche, a marriage of the conscious and the personal and collective unconscious, of good and evil, light and shadow in an ever-renewing creative process of unfolding that had no final end point in life. This understanding follows entirely on the principle of mutual arising as expounded in Taoist and western alchemical thought and stood directly in opposition to what Jung considered to be on one hand, the one sided position of material science which separated self from the falsely objectified world as it strove towards greater consciousness and away from ‘primitive’ thought, and  on the other, to the dogmatic Christian tradition which had sought to separate good from evil, light from darkness in a final and definitive way that, for many hundreds of years then cast the instinctive, feminine, chthonic aspects of the psyche out into the wilderness at, what he considered to be great personal and collective cost.

Considering the curious inter-relationship between the personal self and the wider world Jung wrote insightfully;

If things go wrong in the world this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need- because outside authority no longer means anything to me-a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.

Jung, it is important to note here, is not advocating the need for some kind of self-improvement programme. He is saying quite simply that the first step if things go wrong is always to ‘put myself right’, which is to say, in sympathy with the Taoist attitude, to bring myself back into harmony with the way of things. To put ourselves right is the right action at this time if we accept that something is very wrong with the way things are.

To illuminate this point, Jung was very fond of telling the Taoist story of the Rainmaker as described by Richard Wilhelm in his rendering of the I Ching, who observed the events described in the story at first hand.

The story tells of a village in China in which the people were starving as a result of a prolonged drought in the region. To attempt to counteract the drought Wilhelm wrote,

The catholics made processions, the protestants made prayers and the Chinese burned joss sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally, the Chinese said; We will fetch the rainmaker.

The rainmaker came from another province and on arrival in the village asked only for a quiet little house somewhere and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day an unseasonal snowstorm arrived, and the drought subsequently came to an end. Wilhelm who was staying in the village at the time went and found the rainmaker and asked him how he made the snow come. He replied that he was not responsible for making the snowfall. Wilhelm then asked him what he had been doing for the previous three days. He replied,

‘Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordnance of heaven. Therefore, the whole country is not in Tao and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So, I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally, the rains came.’

In relation to this story Jung also used to reflect with his students on the writings of Nietzsche, in the late Christian tradition.

Physician, heal thyself: then wilt thou also heal thy patient. Let it be his best cure to see with his eyes him who maketh himself whole

Comparing these words from the western tradition with the story of the rainmaker Jung wrote;

He (the rainmaker) does not curse the earth or pray to heaven to behave and produce rain. He says to himself that he was right when he left his village and when he got here, he was wrong. This place is out of order so he is the one that is wrong; that wrong is nearest to him and if he wants to do anything for the chaotic condition it must be done in him-he is the immediate object of himself. So he asks for that little house and there he locks himself in and works on himself; he remains shut in until he reconciles heaven and earth in himself, until he is in the right order, and then he has cured the situation; Tao is established. That is exactly the same idea. So the best cure for anybody is when the one who thinks about curing has cured himself; inasmuch as he cures himself he is the cure’

In his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung reflected on the way in which some of his patients would simply outgrow a problem that would destroy others. He concluded that what he had termed outgrowing was in fact the development of a new level of consciousness;

Here and there it happened in my practice that a patient grew beyond himself because of unknown potentialities, and this became an experience of prime importance to me.  I had learned in the meanwhile that the greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved but only outgrown

In considering what this meant in practice Jung reflected further.

What did these people do in order to achieve the development that liberated them? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself, became for me the key opening the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen …this is an art of which few people know anything. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating and never leaving the simple growth of the psychic process in peace.

We are, according to Taoist tradition, bound by cosmic (heavenly) laws that infinitely outweigh any given governmental, social or economic (human) system. That which is forged in time cannot rule over that which is a first principle out of time. In a hierarchical sense-the smaller cannot create the greater but it can adhere to the patterns or principles of the greater. We are, say the Taoists, bound by the eternal reality of the principles of Yang and Yin and as such we live always in a world of explicit duality and implicit unity. The multiplicity of forms is borne out of an absolute underlying and invisible unity and our work as humans is to perceive and acknowledge both spheres as one single coherent reality., In precisely this way we can say that our feet and head are explicitly different forms of one unified body.

Our actions have consequences precisely because we are of the earth and not separate from it. When we move, everything moves. When we totter, everything totters. When we act, there is a response. As an integral part of the Earth system, we have by our collective actions over time precipitated and amplified- for whatever well  or ill-intentioned reasons- a state of immense imbalance in response to which the greater system itself is now adapting, correcting and changing  itself in search of harmony and balance. From a Daoist perspective of course, the greater movement of earth systems to compensate for our actions is quite natural and quite impersonal but the result of this imbalance is that the very delicate set of conditions that makes human and much of creaturely life possible  on earth is under existential threat and thus it feels and therefore is to a considerable degree, absolutely personal.

Having reached its zenith, every organic system naturally returns to its source and the end becomes the beginning. It is not any different than the ebb and flow of crops in our polytunnels over the course of a growing year or in the changing seasons that direct our work or the waxing and waning of the moon in the course of a year. It is simply inevitable and something we can respond to with more or less consciousness, sympathy and awareness. Looked at this way it might be helpful to reconsider the quality of attitude we might be advised to adopt to co -exist fruitfully on the earth in a time, as the Tao de Ching 36 puts it, of dwindling, weakening, being laid low and being taken away from. This remedy would seem to be to yield (yin) to the situation first rather than blindly strive(yang) to win at all costs and to move for a time with the downward feminine impulse and away from the rising masculine impulse. How we interpret these things in practice is something worth considering.

This is, the Tao would suggest, the appropriate response to the times and the way of no error. It is in truth a form of wu-wei or effortless action rather than mere passivity and surrender to the fates. I suspect it is connected closely to Jung’s experience of his patients naturally ‘outgrowing’ a previous state which ultimately implies an expansion of our conscious position, in part at least, through the integration of unconscious material into a new attitude- accommodating more completely whatever has been cut off or denied by our outdated scientific and religious position in pursuit of greater though one sided consciousness depicted as scientifically materialistic and morally good. It is not a view that will sit well with our modern western bias for thinking and action, as Jung observed and is in fact hard to grasp, since it is a profoundly unfamiliar attitude for the western mind to adopt.

Considering the attitude of self-development further, Jung wrote;

When I examined the way of development of those persons who quietly grew beyond themselves I saw that their fates had something in common. The new thing came to them out of obscure possibilities either outside or inside themselves; they accepted it and developed further by means of it…In no case was it conjured into existence through purpose and conscious willing, but rather seemed to be born on the stream of time…I have been deeply impressed with the fact that the new thing presented by fate seldom or never corresponded to conscious expectation

If we take Jung’s observations seriously then we too must be open to accepting ‘obscure possibilities’, even to taking a position quite contrary to our typical position if we wish to be aligned to the pattern of this moment. To follow the times faithfully, is to follow the ‘subtle light’ which is to say, to follow the Way as it actually is but that may be hidden from what seems obvious and apparent.  To do so would be no doubt a defeat for the western ego and a necessary one at that. Humility may well prove to be the leit motif of our times and the first necessary condition for a more balanced future. Conditions seem hugely unpropitious for such a change of heart and tack,-since our current western model towards dominating, damaging and assailing the world is yet so prevalent in every system, be it political, social or economic – but the seed of hope, such as hope exists, lies, I suspect in this more subtle light- the alchemical  lumen naturae, and in the fact that it is always in every persons hands to get themselves back in order to then work effectively and sensitively with whatever unfolds, however grim or terrifying, remarkable or astonishing ,in the faith that through whatever rites of passage we must now endure, the rain will eventually come and the drought be assuaged in time as individual attitudes shift.

Speaking personally, I am neither hopeful nor hopeless today about the situation we find ourselves in or about our prospects for the future. What I imagine is that the rainmaker had it about right and we could do well to think on that before rushing about ever more frantically to ‘fix’ the mess we’ve made when the chaos remains inside us unassuaged.

Physician, heal thyself it has been said. To straighten things out we may paradoxically have to get more flexible and fluid and become more receptive to the way things are moving (as in a dance in which we are creatively participant) thereby recovering at least our own natural balance from which effective and skilful or timely action might arise. This alone is noble action and represents a powerful action in the face of great dismay. The universal forces at play are far greater than us  and any system we have or will ever create and this is important to know and understand deeply since it means we can at least privately choose a new attitude appropriate to the moment we are in. Far from being a prescription it is simply a matter of allowing what is natural to come forwards and to move accordingly. As is written in the Zhuangzi:

The fluidity of water is not the result of any effort on the part of water but is its natural property. And the virtue of the perfect man is such that even without cultivation there is nothing which can withdraw from his sway. Heaven is naturally high, the earth is naturally solid, the sun and moon are naturally bright. Do they cultivate these attributes?

Thinking of the oak tree down the lane, it’s interesting to me that surrounding it are various clumps of flowers and other offerings that local people have planted or left around its trunk over many years. It’s nothing formal of course though its roots go deep into the psyche and have expression as a deep appreciation and acknowledgement by everyday people from the village for a living being that embodies so fully what I am calling li-organic pattern-something that I experience in its presence as something akin to truth. Someone told me once that tree and true carry the same linguistic root and that makes sense. I could call the oak tree ‘wise’’ or even an ‘elder’ and I do see it both ways sometimes -but of course that’s word baggage and the tree doesn’t care too much about my words, preferring I imagine the great silence that always surrounds it.  Li is a simple principle and it either is or is not present in a thing or indeed an action or a movement. In the things of Heaven, as we have seen, it always is and never strays. Like everything of real importance, it cannot be named in words, as Zhuangzu says of the Tao,

 “…it may be attained but not seen, felt but not conceived, intuited but not categorized, divined but not explained”.

Not this, not that. The path as ever, is perfectly mysterious and subtle.

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A Sacramental Culture

Only long hours of silence can lead us to our language, only long miles of strangeness can lead us to our home. Kenneth White

Dark and cold we may be, but this 
is no winter now. The frozen misery 
of century’s breaks, cracks, begins to move; 
the thunder is the thunder of the floes, 
the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.

Thank God our time is now when wrong 
Comes up to face us everywhere, 
Never to leave us till we take 
The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

The enterprise is exploration into God.

Where are you making for? It takes 
So many thousand years to wake…

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

-Christopher Fry-

Maybe it’s so.

Maybe the seasons are getting confused. Dark and cold it is outside but maybe the poet is right in his estimation. Maybe this is not only a winter we are in now but something else; an upstart spring perhaps, a spring erupting unseasonably, strangely, in the throes of winter, a violent breaking, the skewing of the seasons in weird and maybe apocalyptic ways.

Affairs it seems, in these troubled times, have got soul sized.


I wonder wrote the Irish philosopher John Moriarty, if we have the kind of sacramental culture that can shelter us, guide us, comfort us, and walk with us, as we undergo these transitions. And if we do not, I wonder, are we willing in the interests of our own and the earth’s evolution to let such a culture emerge?

Put more extremely, he added,

Is it in fact about the future evolution of humanity or extinction? Not to emerge from but with the earth..


Is it not the case that when we take things without asking, however we do that, we violate that which we take from since we are acting without agreement?

In the act, or is it in the attitude of taking without asking, the boundaries and limitations that define a thing must be discarded or denied, overlooked or simply go unseen, no permission is sought or given and the result, in the end must always be destructive since something or someone will always suffer a violation in the bargain. The person or place, thing or species that’s taken from is harmed-its natural distinctions and character, destroyed or at least compromised.

And it’s a two way street.

In a counter movement, the taker, in the taking, accrues a debt which must be met. Maybe many debts.

 The violence of the act of taking always has to do with the severance of things and any moral solidarity there might have been with that from which was taken is in the act of taking, broken.


During my fifteen years as an addiction therapist, I had occasion at times to work in hospitals where I would spend time with mother’s who, themselves addicted to taking heroin or crack cocaine, or dependent on legalised substitute drugs, had given birth to a child who carried that addiction inside them as their own. It was always a difficult scene, withdrawal from dependency always is and in such a place as a maternity ward, under such circumstances it felt at times purgatorial.

In the womb of the mother, the child knew no difference of course since all they could know was the silent, dark, still world they were in. Only the shock of birth would change things forever. Entering the fray, the umbilicus cut, the child within a few hours, was unsettled, anxious, sick and in trouble. Withdrawal is a harsh way to take in the dazzling and disorientating new world of sudden and eruptive sense; it’s a harsh way to enter the scene, a hard waking.

Even with the careful use of medications, the process of recovery is arduous and slow for both mother and child and often for the staff involved and of course the physiological trauma of withdrawal for both child and parent is nearly always accompanied by a depth of psychological suffering on the part of the mother who would have wished it differently and thus the passage of the child into life is so often shrouded in humiliation and grief and guilt. Addiction is a boat that traffics a lot of pain; hard to acknowledge, hard to accept and hard to escape-the worst kind of bondage.

No surprise that the word addiction is derived from the Latin, addictus, meaning ‘to be a slave to’.

Like everyone else currently alive, I have come to realise that I, like the addicted child, was born into an addiction not of my own making- and to which I was not in the least bit aware-until I woke up. I was born, like you, innocently enough into a life, a society a culture whose choices, goals, ambitions and ideas of progress and development-whose entire sense of self- were underwritten by what we now know to be the greatest most decisive and consequential collective modern addiction humanity has ever shared; the addiction to fossil fuels.

Now, addiction is a complex word and it is not in itself a modern phenomenon. Addiction to things like power and control, to belief systems, to people and behaviours has a human history as long as actual slavery does and it is something that touches most people’s actual lives one way or another at some point unless they are of the especially exalted kind.

Addiction always has business with concerns about limitations; its primary driving impulse is always something to do with the search for freedom in some form, it is always driven by some sort of powerful belief system, which for various reasons over time degenerates to become a form of private or collective servitude and slavery. The problem with Heroin, as I had to appreciate and come to understand was not that it was nasty but that it was too good at what it did-it worked or at least seemed to work for the user since, notwithstanding problems like raising cash, it instantly and effortlessly freed the person from the burden and despair and source of pain that their lives had become to them, typically as a result of any number of wide ranging abuses and failures they had experienced over a lifetime. As such it offered and delivered at the outset at least- the promised land of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom into,’ which is an archetypal theme as old as history itself.

To avoid over-simplification, a deeper assessment will recognise that the consequential effects of our relationship with fossil fuels reside not in the raw materials themselves of course, but in their relationship to the suffix industry, to the principle of industry, to the development of the modern industrial paradigm-a mighty belief system founded on a powerful philosophy that promoted and exacerbated our nascent leaning towards addiction, that encouraged, allowed and finally demanded the extraction and use of fossil fuels at ever greater and more exorbitant scale to fuel the perpetuation of its own assumptions. As such our use of fossil fuels, like the pandemic, is symptomatic rather than causal though it has become the cause of so much trouble. In precisely this way, every addiction becomes a closed loop, feeding sustaining and justifying itself with little interest in or time for alternative perspectives. The initial promise of freedom, the initial high changes with time. We must take more to feel good, we must acquire, even steal or rob if necessary to get what we need to keep going and in the process of taking, which we do and have and will, our one desire, our one terrible need is to ensure we get enough, maybe just enough or more dreadfully, maybe not enough, to feel normal.

Thus whilst our use of fossil fuels is not responsible for evoking some new impulse in us, it is a special case to the degree that it has gripped us so totally. It is a special case to the extent that this addiction and the industrial scale exploitation it has itself sanctioned and encouraged in and through multiple other industries has accelerated trends and behaviours in almost unimaginable ways that now undeniably pose an existential threat to what we might call the human project. Given our apparent unwillingness to change our behaviour in the face of the overwhelming evidence of harm caused, the fossil fuel addiction seems to be very real-it does seem to be a genuine addiction. For the human project there has been no drug like oil ever invented and there can be no estimate placed on the extent and degree to which it, as the thrumming engine of the industrial growth paradigm, has shaped our lives and shaped our modern understanding of our place and role on earth.

To be clear, and by way of claiming some kind of useless pardon from those generations yet to be born, the pathway towards the addiction I am now part of and complicit in had not been of my doing at the outset. I cannot say how I would have made choices had I been one of those who first discovered the wonder and power of oil-it’s possible, maybe probable, given what has already been said, that I would have celebrated the discovery of that miraculous force with the same awe and enthusiasm that everyone else did-I don’t know, hindsight is a wonderful thing and it can too easily give us a false estimation of our own personal fallibilities. Certainly I have benefited from that power and those wonders it has facilitated during my lifetime and most surely I will miss it-or what it has made possible- when it runs thin or when the earth body gives out in more dramatic ways or when we decide to quit the abuse. All I can say for certain is that I was born into the world as it was and as such it was a kind of fait accompli that I was presented with. 

I would add, to those yet unborn, that the world I grew up in was the world I inherited from those whose lives were in general terms, also tinged with a curious innocence or blindness to the fact of our growing and costly addiction. In the generations before my own, the real cost of oil exploitation was not really apparent, or so it seems, other than to a relatively few who felt the tremors on the fault line of our ancient pact with the land or who lived or worked on the margins and could see, sense, read or smell the signs of danger in the burning oil fires and the race of progress that it all inspired; in the main however, the party was quickly enough in full swing and there was no talk or expectation of hangovers.

Behold at last we cried being now promethean minded. The Great Advance.

I didn’t realise as a child of course that our addiction came at a price as all addictions do. I didn’t know I or we were addicted or that what we were doing was, as it turned out, wrong. I didn’t know that we were taking and taking routinely without asking permission from a living, intelligent earth that could and should be asked, leaving a rising wake of mess behind us. I didn’t know about the growing hidden ecological debt we would have to pay someday for our excesses or that the debt would fall due in our lifetime. What I recognise as excess today I once thought of as normal life. I can see now that I was wrong in that estimation. I know now that the cost of allowing this understanding to touch me is the feeling of being heart broken.

Finally, I didn’t realise as a child that access to seemingly unlimited power would accelerate and magnify the already developing hubristic philosophical, political, economic, scientific and social systems that were in their wide eyed and enthusiastic conception apparently logical and rational but also hopelessly limited in scope, short sighted and easily seduced, ultimately proving themselves to be delusional, maybe fatally wrong minded in their estimations since they failed to account for the limitations and frailties of our delicate, vulnerable and poorly developed capacity for inclusive thinking and wisdom as well as our proclivities for excess and violation.

There were clues enough of our capacity for folly of course, that might have warned us before things got out of hand, as any indigenous people will tell you, but we were not in a listening mood. The Klondike mind was on us, cataracting our eyes and hardening both our hearts and our resolve and we failed to notice the slow erosion of intelligence and sensitivity, the slow decoupling from the earth, the growing sickness in mind and body that our dependency brought, that all addiction brings.

I like you, was born addicted and like you, it’s taken a long time to start to feel the pain of the inevitable withdrawal and to decide to take steps to address it. One thing that’s true in drug addiction is that you just can’t stay high forever and that seems true for life in general. At some point, if you survive, the money runs out, or the body runs out or the mind runs out or the luck runs out and you discover what it is to be in one way or another, destitute and homeless.

The path from innocence to experience, from childhood to maturity is a crooked one, convoluted and in our day, long and uncertain if achieved at all.  If my experiences of addiction in the hospital are true of wider life and our own predicament then I would conclude that to feel the sickness as well as to receive the healing it will it seems take some kind of re-birthing which is paradoxically to undergo some kind of death. There seems to be required of us some kind of dying time that might initiate a waking up, some kind of severance and shock, some kind of initiation or rite of passage which has its business in the very deepest places of our experience. We may not have asked for the addiction we have any more than the child of the heroin addicted mother did but it is ours to take and ours to meet and complaining that it should be otherwise won’t change that. When things get soul sized, it is to the soul that we must go for help. I was once told by someone older and wiser than me that we never save a soul; that it is always the case that it’s the soul that saves us and on this more vertical understanding of things i suspect a lot hangs.


I recall a line from a poem by Wendell Berry.

There are no un-sacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places

 A sacramental culture, to recall Moriarty, a culture we might say, of accommodation rather than dominion, knows the whole earth to be sacred. In Christian mystical thinking the world is a theophany which is to say divine in all things. The culture of dominion-that underpins our present way of doing things- has forgotten this accommodating or ecumenical principle and only this forgetting can make the act of desecration possible.

Addiction, in all its forms, whether that of the heroin addicted mother or the fuel addicted society is the symptomatic response of a person or people tragically at odds with itself. More fundamentally, it is symptomatic of a person or people at odds with its founding existential relationship to the poles of birth and death and paradoxically their cyclical relationship -thereby lacking the facility to bring about or submit to the natural forces of real change in creative, imaginative and life giving ways.

Addiction, I read once, moves towards actual death when real change was the desire-

Without a ritual to contain and inform the wounds of life, pain and suffering increase yet meaningful change doesn’t occur.

Put this way, the addicted society, like the person, is one that seeks change but having no means by which to bring it about creatively, turns in on itself and acts in ways that ensure its real rather than symbolic death.

The crisis we are in is, in the final reckoning a crisis of profound separation and this has a lot to do with the loss of our sense of what makes life sacred and the loss of what makes a culture sacramental.

The price of our dependency on the tenets of the enlightenment, the New Philosophy, predicated on the logic of Cartesian dualism has, over time, brought about the real death of our relationship with the sacramental; that which is non-rational in human experience. It has brought about the real death of our relationship to the Intelligence of both the universe in which we live and the imaginative life we have with which we can connect our material existence with an innate impulse for the divine. It has rung the death knell-so it seems-on a more intuitive mode of being and condemned to obsolescence the mythic frameworks, rituals, initiatory moments, acts and rites of passage that give place and meaning to our private and shared human experience. Put another way, whatever our claims for gain may be, we have over time lost sight of our exoteric frameworks and our esoteric ground.

Surely it is the case that every healthy society throughout history has been woven together, maintained and renewed through the use of complex patterns of symbols, totems, stories and enactments that made sense of the world and infused the experience of life with something that both inwardly fulfilled and transcended the human world. With the loss of their life supporting stories and rituals history shows us that civilisations descend ,over time, into uncertainty, disequilibrium, chaos and collapse, unable to live in the potentially life giving and renewing space of the margins. A society divorced from its ancestry is a society divorced from any meaningful vision of the future because we can only ever see as far forward as we can see back. A society’s deep sense of respect for the past informs its sense of responsibility for the future and this is upheld mostly through its sense making stories and ceremonies, without which it is extremely vulnerable. Heroic efforts to maintain heroic degrees of separation, predicated on the principle of progress by succession, divorced from or moving away from the rhythms and cycles of the earth, flows against the currents of evolutionary change and become both exhausting and self-defeating. Life and culture is diminished and becomes shallow.

A society whose whole consciousness is outward orientated is a society in trouble. For the longest time the living things of the earth have been in the habit of shaping themselves to suit the earth. It was a fateful day when we turned things upside down and tried to shape the earth to suit us.


I have heard it said that when we sit together in a circle around a fire at night we should think of ourselves as the younger ones, as the children. To think this way is to allow a shift in perception in our relationship to serious things like time and eternity, the relative and the absolute and the meaning of the long history of human endeavour. In a tribal context, the children always get to sit closest to the fire and using this story we might imagine behind us, at our backs, our relatives, through countless generations, sitting in circles behind us, away into the far distance of time, watching on.

Perhaps after a time of sitting we might contemplate too, the time when our place at the fire will be taken by the next generations, we might feel ourselves recede in time and notice the thinness of the veil that separates life and death, generation from generation. Sitting at the fire, as the children, the younger brothers and sisters of the earth- perhaps we might sense or feel the degree of responsibility we hold in our hands to act well on behalf of the whole system we behold. Sitting beside the fire we might come to see and understand the gravity of what it means to have agency.

How beautiful and how terrible it is.

How beautiful and how terrible we are.

How fearfully and wonderfully made we are.

We might ask ourselves what it is out of our sovereign selves, out of what is Right Royal in us that we need to authorise now.

We must surely ask ourselves, must think, reflect, and consider deeply, what that means and what it demands of us.

We must act of course because we are alive and yet, given our capacity for destructive as well as constructive actions, we must be careful about what we sanction lest we do more harm than good. Before we act maybe we need to make sure things are right with us-in and around us- so that we might act with the wisdom that agency demands. This is to think sacramentally and it requires inner work. The breakdown and fragmentation we see in the world says a lot about the breakdown and fragmentation we feel in ourselves.

The world we have inherited, the times we are in place a burden of responsibility on those of us sitting closest to the fire now to re-imagine our relationship with power and with this in mind people often mark the distinction between  the hierarchical model of ‘power over’ in contrast to a more collaborative model of ‘power with’.

 This is another way of talking about the positions of domination and accommodation.

The Indian Chief Wabasha once gave advice to his people concerning Tribal Council gatherings.

When you are assembled in Council, fail not to light in the midst the Fire which is the symbol of the Great Spirit and the sign of His presence.

And light the sacred pipe which is the symbol of Peace, Brotherhood, Council and Prayer and smoke first to the Great Spirit in heaven above then to the Four Winds, His messengers and to Mother Earth, through whom He furnishes us our food

And let each councillor smoke, passing the pipe in a circle like that of the Sun from east to west.

I think of this advice as an example of power held in the manner of ecumenism or accommodation, that accounts and cares for the holistic, interconnected relationships of life, signified by the inter-related, trichotomous symbols of the Divine, Human and Nature- best understood as an holistic actuality. It is a mature orientation.

We must account for each and all of these symbols if we are to have a right sized reckoning of life.


The purpose of initiation in every culture has always been to provide context and meaning to a person’s life, to support the development of a person towards the state of adulthood or maturity. It was through the puberty rite for example, that a ‘candidate’ would pass from the natural mode of the child and gain access to the cultural mode of the community. Introduced to the spiritual values of the community the candidate would be changed, they would become, as Mercia Eliade put it;

‘Real human beings; ‘…having access to the full human condition including the religious life.’ 

It was understood that the child must die to childhood and thus death itself, the darkness, the hidden mystery, was a central part of the initiatory and transformational experience. A partial life in the profane world of the material universe is sacrificed for greater participation in the sacred universe of which the community is evidentially both symbol and participant.

Initiation invites a ‘whole way’ orientation to seeing into the world, one that sees death, and the cosmic cycle of death-rebirth, as part of the fabric of life. On the ground of initiation, death is understood rightly as being the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life-Life, capitalised includes both and the spirit of Life regenerates in the underworld of the death experience. It is a sacramental approach and maybe it’s a helpful if unfashionable way of thinking about the times we are in.

When we think about the ache of the loss or confusion or anger or fear we feel in the face of the crises of our time, when we sit with these things steadily rather than running away, we might come to see what needs to die now in our own lives and be rightly honoured by our grief so that we can move on in a good way, more able for the days ahead.

When we think about the spirit of renewal we might consider what spirit needs to be renewed, re-blessed, re-sanctified, renamed, redeemed, honoured, seen, danced, acted, sung, ritualised and propitiated into new life.

If we are unwilling to countenance death as a natural part of our lived experience we will be unable to navigate between the ache of loss and the enlivening spirit of renewal, that surely frame the times that we are in and that lie ahead of us. We will not be able to be broken hearted, in the way these times most surely demand, only shattered or isolated or frightened and cut off. We will not know the world or the ground we stand on for the sacred gift that it is, we will not be able to imagine the possibility of a life nested in a universe whose dimensions in every regard are greater, more splendid and more terrible, than our experience can contemplate. To countenance death, which is what we are being asked to do today, demands much of us, because we have travelled a long way from ourselves in pursuit of other things, but I believe, it will be central to our capacity to navigate the road that lies ahead because it is an initiatory time we are in.


Man is all imagination said William Blake.

If greater knowledge- or wisdom even-could be understood to include a broadening perspective that guides our behaviours holistically, then maybe it is the gift of creative imagination that can, as it once did, form a bridge between our out worn efforts at conquest and new ways of seeing the world. Maybe it is through the imaginative life that we might best meet the world anew, maybe reconsider our vision and imagine or envision a different and more ecumenical future. We must move of course, but before moving, we must have a vision that’s worth moving towards. That’s the point of the vision. It is the still point in the turning world and without vision we are lost

In traditional thought the faculty of Imagination was the central faculty of the soul, connecting the faculties of the senses, belonging to the body, and the material world with the faculty of the Intellect belonging to the spirit and celestial world.  In this understanding which accommodates our actual lived experience as both horizontal and vertical in nature, It is the imagination particularly that can see beyond the thing itself (its material form) to what dwells vividly behind and within it, (its form or essence) offering us clues and insights about our proper place and role on earth in language that is firstly symbolic and rich rather than merely literal and reductive. We could review our estimation of animals as merely so many kilos of meat.  We could review our estimation of trees as merely so many cubic metres of timber. We could review our estimation of our children as mere functionaries-to-be in a system of endless production. We could turn once again to see afresh the living tree, the living animal, the genius in a child, the universe in a grain of sand, the sacred and interconnected nature of things that are there, just below appearances, that can speak, that have intelligence, that can help and guide our understanding.

Maybe it is through Imagination-as intelligence- and the imaginative life-through its exoteric and esoteric aspects, that we might find a way to bandage and poultice the sickness we feel and begin to move instinctively and with some courage and humility towards a different kind of experience, a different way of being.

We should understand that the common term we have for our species, Homo sapiens sapiens is not or should not be thought of as a given. The evidence today doesn’t support such an assumption.  It’s something that must be repeatedly earned and repeatedly renewed if it is to mean anything at all.

To call our universe a ‘nothing but’ universe as Newton did, was a terrible curse and a terrible judgement and there have been many curses and many judgments.  Maybe in order to see things rightly we will come to realise that in the future we face the mind might be in fact the blind, not the window. The Imaginative faculty was traditionally the seat of the soul but it was also the seat of the heart and as Antoine de St Exupery once wrote, ‘it is only with the heart that one sees rightly.’ When we flatten and disenchant the universe, through wrong seeing all is lost. The world is in reality a both-and sort of place. It is in the end a matter of perception. Blake was right in his estimation when he wrote ‘the eye altering alters all.’ A sacramental culture knows this and maybe it is this kind of knowledge that can guide us; slowly, maybe fitfully and painfully but with some hope towards the pole of evolution rather than extinction.


There are said to be creative pauses

Pauses that are as good as death, empty and dead as death itself

And in these awful pauses the evolutionary change takes place.

Perhaps it is so,

The tragedy is over, it has ceased to be tragic, the last pause is upon us

Pause, brethren, pause?  DH Lawrence

A time of Kairos this is not merely Cronos; that at least, is certain. We are in vertical times; times demanding, times seeking- radical re-thinking and radical reconnection- and maybe we could, with Lawrence imagine this time to be something like a Creative Pause.

Looking around it is not hard to conclude that we are involved, whether we like it or not, in a time of radical change and transformation. I’d go further and call it a global initiation and as such it is greatly requiring of each of us. It’s not a rational statement necessarily, to put it this way, though to my mind, the evidence is everywhere to support it. I’m not in the business of trying to persuade so maybe it’s better to put it more simply and more personally;

Can you not feel it?

In my reading at least, Christopher Fry has it right sized and he knows as I think we know that things hang in the balance. More than we know he knows that the forces at work are bigger than us in every regard. His words are, or can be a mirror if we have the willingness or the inclination to look.

Imagining this to be the case, seeing it this way, we will surely have compassion for the mother and the child born out of and into addiction and know in some strange way that the addiction that encompassed them also encompasses us and shows itself to us in the mirror of our days in all the ways we find ourselves both personally and collectively ‘out of sorts’. A common fallacy is that we will find an easy way out that will allow us to cheat the rites we must in fact endure and undergo on the way to greater personal and collective maturity. That is a fallacy born in part at least, of the seduction of comfort that our addiction has accustomed us to and something we must face.

There is a thunder roaring.

The frozen misery of century’s breaks, cracks, begins to move.

The human being has become iceberg to the earth.

We are Man Overboard.


I imagine we would realise if we looked from a mountain top, at the vastness of time and human life, that the way of life we have come to call normal is not how it should be, always was or will be in the future. The long decades of the most recent decadence that lays behind us have been a brief anomaly in a long human story that is nested in an unimaginably long earth story that has, for its part, more or less cost the earth to sustain. Only pride and hubris and fear will blind the eye to this. Along the way we broke faith with the earth and went our own way and in so doing we lost all sense of what it might mean to walk beautifully on the earth and we blazed a new kind of trail.

Now the seasons are confused and the world groans as the human soul grieves.

 It is time to come ashore.

Life after Heroin is not always better than life on heroin but it is different and it is possible. Life in a net-zero carbon neutral world, which we must achieve very soon if we wish to choose life over extinction-the addicts choice of course- will be the same; different. Not always better, not always worse but different, yes-and necessary and possible.

To get where we need to go will engender some kind of passage and we could usefully frame it as a rite of passage thereby giving it context, meaning and significance.

 It has already begun.

The purposes of rites of passage, though they have business in the deep waters of death are finally life affirming and community affirming. Sacramental culture takes exoteric rites, rituals and initiations as well as myths and other forms of expression seriously, as the very things that symbolically ( Imaginatively) and literally (materially) bind us to the whole(celestial),  activities that can be properly understood as religious in the literal sense of ‘binding to’ or binding back’. They are the still and unmoving and timeless points of every culture bound in time, that makes a place for the mystery of life and its queer, weird and wild dualities, around which the lives of its people turn, around what we experience as the apparently linear progress of life from birth to death takes place.

What all these stories and sacred activities serve to do however is to help us realise-to remind us perhaps, that our linear or progressive, purely historical understanding of things is only a partial, incomplete truth. Death is not the end in fact because the opposite of death is not life, but birth. This is what initiation, the rite we are in and must endure now at a global-scale can teach us if we are humble enough to sit by the fire of our collective dark night and listen. It is in this eternal truth that we can perhaps take some heart, and maybe through which we can find some courage to contemplate, reconsider and then act otherwise in the face of the way things really are. It is an attitude we can take, a pathway we can learn to walk even now, and one that abides as it always has, at the heart of a sacramental culture.

The poet is right. Affairs are now soul sized and much, maybe everything depends on we whose time it is, we who find ourselves sitting close up to the fire.

Where are you making for? It takes 
So many thousand years to wake…

But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

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The Great Stopping

What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from-TS Elliot

Suppose for a moment that it was true; something I heard a First Nations elder say recently; that we should think of ourselves first and foremost as guests on this earth. At a time that seems more alive than usual to the possibility for reflection on matters of endings and beginnings, consideration of our relationship with the earth, as guest or otherwise, and with the living things of the earth including one another should be something we take seriously. In a time of Great Stopping, this is surely a rare moment for us to deeply re-evaluate, to think again on what it means to be a human being on earth with the very particular skills and gifts that we have.

Thinking on the words of the elder I turned to some thoughts on the subject of the destruction of the First Nations people in the 18th and 19th centuries in America written by the metaphysicist Frithjof Schuon. In his summary of their plight at the hands of the ‘white man’ he wrote,

‘This great drama, might be defined as the struggle, not only between a materialistic civilisation and another that was chivalrous and spiritual, but also between urban civilisation (with all its implications of artifice and servility) and the Kingdom of Nature considered as the majestic, pure, unlimited apparel of the Divine Spirit. And it is from this idea of the final victory of Nature (final because it is primordial) that the Indians drew their inexhaustible patience in the face of the misfortunes of their race; Nature, of which they feel themselves to be embodiments, and which is at the same time their sanctuary, will end up by conquering this artificial and sacrilegious world, for it is the garment, the breath, the very hand of the Great Spirit’

There is something prophetic in Schuon’s words of course. We sense it as the tension that would accelerate dramatically over the following century in the growing schism between materialistic civilisation and other more ‘chivalrous and spiritual’ ways of life, between an urban civilisation and the Kingdom of Nature, a conflict that has come to be a leitmotif of our own times. We gain from Schuon a deeper sense of the perspective that the Indians had; their inexhaustible patience in the face of misfortune based as it was on a relationship with nature that was intimate, holy and reciprocal and finally we see it in the clarity of foresight that recognises that Nature is in the end, as an expression of the Divine Spirit, greater and more powerful in every regard than our modern capacity for conquest and dominion.

In the Great Stopping I have read that the air in our cities has, in recent weeks, become cleaner-that the smog has lifted in Delhi to reveal the long hidden blue sky over the Taj Mahal, that birdsong can be heard again in London, that the water in the canals of Venice is running clear and clean. Around the world, in the strange abiding silence, in the absence of our ‘artificial and sacrilegious’ behaviours, it seems we can feel again, if we have the capacity and inclination, ‘the garment, the breath, the very hand of the Great Spirit around us.’

The earth, so the graphs and tables and images in the media tell us, does not miss our incessant activity, nor is she, I imagine, interested in the loss or continuation of our self-created obsession with growth and progress. To watch her systems at work, it feels reasonable to surmise that she wouldn’t understand what has possessed us so frantically for so long to be so discordant with her own rhythms and cycles. It reminds me of the words of Chief Mountain Lake in his conversation with Carl Jung when, observing the behaviour of the ‘white man’ he said;

‘…they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

I wonder, were the earth to speak, if she might draw a similar conclusion. It is to the Kingdom of Nature that final victory will always come wrote Schoun. This was the patient understanding of the First Nations people and we see today that it is true. Man it seems is not the measure of all things after all.

The Great Stopping presents us with the rarest imaginable opportunity to realise that our continuation as a species is not necessary for the earth to thrive, though we are dependent on her for our lives in every regard; this is surely an inescapable truth. The notion that our self-centred activity over recent decades and centuries has somehow ‘improved on nature’ per se is clearly an absurdity, the belief that we can bend natural systems to our will and rapaciously take from the living earth whatever we like without consequence for the purposes of profit can be seen today for what it is-a flawed, hubristic misjudgement of our proper place and role on the earth.

As a small scale organic farmer, working with the land every day as I do, I see quite clearly that our lives unfold within a system that is exquisitely and intricately balanced. Alan Brockman, a pioneer in the field of Biodynamic agriculture made the point once that every civilisation on earth has been dependent for its survival on the top few inches of soil that are hospitable to raising crops. Life and death are that marginal. As a farmer, my work, as I understand it is to care for the soil and to encourage an abundance of life to thrive within it so that the food we grow will be strong, resilient to pests and diseases and vibrant in its life force. The food we all eat every day, often with little or no regard, depends on this and without it, we will not be. Plants depend on good soil, a healthy earth, to grow, and they depend as well on clean air, fresh water and sunlight. The interrelationship between the basic elements of earth, air, water and fire make our lives possible and they exist in a balance that is dynamic, rhythmic and cyclical, a balance that is surely robust yet, in regard to unconscious human activity, greatly vulnerable.

It is said in the Tao Te Ching that ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. A more accurate rendering of that passage actually would be something like ‘the long journey begins beneath one’s feet,’’ thereby moving it away from a more modern insistence on subjective agency. The ancient rendering recognises the long distance as beginning beneath one’s feet in stillness or potentiality but without movement. It’s a good place to begin. Every quest must start with a well formed question arising out of silence. The Great Stopping is important because it has brought us to a standstill that would have been almost impossible to conceive of a few short months ago. And it has woken us up to our own vulnerability; it has been imposed on us all, something that in itself has manifestly shaken the very foundations of our worn out assumptions about holding ‘dominion over the earth’. Some will see this time as a curse and others will see it as a gift and that is inevitable. There is tragedy unfolding and there is also good, as there is death and life. In either case however, the fact that this is a profound moment, one of immense consequence, a time of kairos in the Greek understanding rather than chronos, is, I think, unquestionable.

When asked what he thought about western civilisation, Mahatma Ghandi famously responded by saying he thought it would be a good idea, and it seems to me that this gets to the heart of the matter at this point in time, a time I would add, that is also a matter of the heart. How might we, how could we, define our ideas of western civilisation for the future in ways that would be at once economically viable and environmentally sustainable? What would it look like to re-shape our ideas and assumptions about growth, progress and development in ways that were ‘right sized’, rather than persistently inflated and hubristic, that were just, equitable and fair, not only within and towards the human population in all its rich diversity but ecumenical with all of life?

As a farmer, I know the value of the balance of the elements of earth, air, water and fire to be essential for the food I grow and would see the long term health of these things, in farming terms; good soil, clean air, freshwater and sunlight as a fundamental measure for any kind of future worth having along with the health and resilience of the communities around me. It’s a good place to start by my reckoning since we all have to eat and be together.

Business as Usual?

I have read articles in the last week or so in both The Guardian and The Financial Times that explore the positive impact that Covid 19 is having on global pollution and the metrics by which we measure our continuing impact on the climate. Reduction in air travel and the use of cars and the slow-down in activity of global heavy industry have had measurable and clear positive impact on the environment in a matter of a few weeks as satellite images of city pollution graphically describe. The earth it seems is saying a big ‘yes’ to life without us and this cannot or should not be ignored.

Both articles raise the vexing question of how we will proceed together in the coming months and years in relation to what is generally referred to today as Business As Usual. I’m not sure there has ever been a more insidious and poisonous acronym than BAU nor do I think there is anything more disturbing and heart-breaking than the possibility or likelihood that we will blindly try to get back to BAU ‘when all this is over.’ BAU is an ugly term, wielded like a blunt instrument, predicated on the fallacious understanding that our collective way of doing business in the world is somehow unquestionably right, inevitable and necessary and that our brutal actions towards one another and the earth are somehow justified if undertaken in the name of economics, market conditions, competition, progress, growth and so on. Today BAU has a question mark placed firmly after it which makes the whole thing more intriguing.

BAU?  What does that mean now? It’s a good question.

As we look ahead and consider how we want to live together, how we want to define our understanding of, say, the word ‘economy’ for future generations (literally from the Greek oikos-nomos, meaning ‘management of the household’), we must surely sense the responsibility we hold at a personal, local and collective level to re-evaluate what BAU means for us in ways that might allow us to continue with the global human project within realistic constraints and limitations. If Covid 19 has the air of fate about it, then failures to address this fundamental and causal question will I suspect prove in the end to be fatal for us all. It seems it has fallen to our generation, to the citizens of these strange days to face this fact.

What does it look like to be a citizen of these days? The Great Stopping is asking many things of us both personally and collectively. We are discovering in many ‘developed’ western countries what it means to be citizens of what the author Stephen Jenkinson calls ‘flabby democracies’ which is not great news. ‘The good times look good on us’ he says, but in tough times, it’s seems it’s a different picture. In ‘peace time’ democratic cultures we are not used to unexpected adversity anymore and we have become distanced from and frightened of death in ways that make these days look hard on us. We have difficulty with any notion of limitation. We have been sleepwalking. It will be demanding to face up to the questions that are in front of us now with the degree of maturity, clarity, wisdom and consideration being demanded of us. We need to wake up and grow up fast and maybe too fast. In The Native Indian language a ‘minisino’ was a ‘tried and proven’ person, ‘at all times clean, courteous and master of himself’. It’s a rare thing today to see all three of these things in one person which is a real concern that weights against a good outcome to this story.

Nonetheless here’s something to consider.

Pollution is a powerful metric, a quantifiable, verifiable indicator of our decade’s long, centuries long insatiable pursuit of industrial growth and economic success and it is, as we all know, consequential. Should it be our goal to rush back to what we had, to what we were all into before the pandemic? Should it be a goal, an implicit but necessary bi-product at least of our stated goals for ‘recovery’-to pollute our cities once more, to live our days in smog again, to pollute the waters, deafen the ears, rush about the globe in planes on ‘urgent business’ continue to hold the acquisition of yet more stuff we don’t need in such high regard again, to abuse and plunder the earth still further in pursuit of the now clearly absurd myth of even greater ‘progress’? Wasn’t Ghandi right when he said that there was more to life than increasing its speed? Might there be a different way?

BAU? What does that mean? What will that mean?

In this time of Great Stopping we might well wonder-and it is good that we do-what the rightful role of the human being on earth both could and should be in the future. What would it look like to be ‘right sized’ on earth? How might words such as reciprocity, humility, dignity, gratitude, kindness, justice, and wonder for example, help to poultice and heal our hubristic, tired, anxious and overwrought souls?  I wonder if it is out of these kinds of words alongside a radical act of Imagination- which is surely one of the greatest of human attributes- that a redefinition of the meanings of things such as economy, society and civilisation might slowly emerge as a genuinely valuable consequence of our troubled times. I wonder if we have looked death close enough in the eye in recent days to wake up to our lives and to what it means to be alive on this singular planet. I hope so.

The Irish philosopher John Moriarty once reflected that he thought it a sin ‘to see anything as smaller than it is.’ To see a forest only as so many cubic metres of timber, to see an animal only as so many kilos of meat-is to sin against it he said, and I think he was right in that appraisal. The First Nations Chief Wabasha spoke in a similar way when he described sin as ‘trespass against the laws of the Great Spirit’. He said that sin brings its own punishment because sin is its own punishment. In this we see the burden of sin as the inevitable suffering-mental, emotional, spiritual and physical, of living lives out of balance, the natural consequence of straying from the principles that would support us in living a good life on earth. Giving one example of what a good life-a life in balance- might look like Chief Washaba said;

When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light. Give thanks for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and give thanks for the joy of living. And if perchance you see no reason for giving thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself’.

These words, expressing an essential gratitude for and responsibility to life, did not come from a weak man or a fool, rather they formed the solid basis of an attitude to life that began every morning at dawn and travelled with the Chief and his people throughout each day as a fundamental orientation to every event and activity that they encountered from birth until the singing of their sacred death songs. Washaba was a great leader of a great people living in an unforgiving and resplendent world, who understood well the reciprocal nature of human life on earth and who lived life both materially and spiritually with great dignity and a proper sense of responsibility. I would without hesitation invite him, were he alive, to a council that had to do with our collective future. There is no flabby democracy here. I don’t think we see his kind too often amongst modern leaders these days and that is to our obvious detriment.

‘I never led an expedition against the Indians, said Buffalo Bill, but I was ashamed of myself, ashamed of my government and ashamed of my flag; for they were always in the right and we were always in the wrong’

This was the honest appraisal of a dying man of the great cost of the Indian wars and his recognition that the ‘victorious conquest’ of Indian land, was in fact, in the end a tragic failure of vision. Much can be taken I believe that is of value for our times from that man’s ability to reflect well and honestly on the relative merits of certain actions and attitudes of mind, especially those that appeared to be god given and unquestionable. The Indian wars represented the destruction of way of life by a particular ideology that still grips us today at great cost. Sometimes a change of heart is not only important but essential. It will be to our great shame if we fail to recognise the fact.

There are no un-sacred places,’ wrote Wendell Berry; ‘only sacred places and desecrated places.’ In this time of Great Stopping we would do well to think on these words as we consider how we want to move forwards with our human project in an uncertain world. Are we done yet with the wholesale desecration of earth, are we able to see the world as other cultures have in times past and as we once did-as a place essentially sacred in nature and worthy of our deepest respect and care?

Perhaps in this time of endings and beginnings it could be helpful to imagine ourselves, at least for a moment to be guests on this earth. Why not? If it were the case, I wonder how it could shift our understanding of how we might think and behave here. How might it help us to reconsider our attitude to the living things we share the earth with who quite plainly don’t need us for their lives to continue well?

Before we take the ‘single step’ of which the Taoists speak we will have to recognise that much struggle lies ahead of us beyond the very obvious, complex socio-economic and political fall-out of the pandemic we are currently gripped by. We will have much work to do together if we are to militate against the worst ecological and environmental consequences that are the fruit of so many decades of thoughtless action in regard to the earth and any talk of BAU must account for this as we seek to find our feet again somewhere down the road. We were, say the First Nations people, put here, not simply to take like greedy children but to pray, to live a disciplined life, to sacrifice, to be kindly, to have courage, to celebrate, to be unafraid to live or die, to be free in thought and action within nature’s limits and to achieve a graceful adulthood, as was once taught; in the Body Way, the Knowledge Way, The Spirit Way and the Tribal Way. This sounds like the basis for a wise, sincere and abiding economy to me and a good place to begin a conversation.

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Rainforest Reflections: Reaching the End of the Runway

On January 1st 2020 I will stop using air travel as a means of getting around for either work or pleasure. I will start with the obvious reason for that decision but I want to move onto something that is perhaps a little more hidden.

If the British climate scientist Kevin Anderson is correct with his data demonstrating that 10% of the global population is responsible for 50% of total global carbon emissions (20% are responsible for 70% of emissions) then I certainly fit easily within that affluent 10%. 1

Inequality is a huge problem today in every arena of life across the globe and of course it’s no surprise to see that inequality really driving the climate and ecosystemic crisis. As someone who has worked for almost 15 years as a consultant in corporate organisations around the globe I am, or have been, come the final reckoning, one of the great offenders in terms of my high-mobility high emissions lifestyle. In the last couple of years I’ve greatly reduced my travel, nonetheless when I undertook a couple of recent comparative self-assessments on my personal carbon footprint I was shocked to discover that my own footprint stands at around 53 metric tonnes per annum despite the reductions.2 Whilst I am aware that there is great debate and uncertainty about how to measure carbon emissions accurately (I am a lay person and not an expert in these matters) nonetheless even as a broad approximation, this is stark news. To give some perspective, the average UK footprint sits, as far as I can tell, at around 8 or 9 metric tons and the world wide average at around 4 or 5 metric tons.3 The typical annual output in Kenya is reported to be around 0.2 tons 4 and the global target to combat climate change is around 2 tons per capita.5

Under further analysis, of the 52 metric tons I probably emitted in 2018, a staggering 42 tons was attributed to flying. At 10 metric tons per annum the remainder means that I’m still overweight of course-I am after all one of the privileged 10%- but it’s a meaningful shift and an action I am able to take. So in January I will stop flying and I will surrender my once cherished BA Gold Card and the once esteemed position of being a ‘frequent flyer’.

How those of us amongst the 10% tackle the responsibility of being in such an exclusive and troubling ‘giant footprint club’ is a compelling question. There are quick solutions of course as one might expect. We can with relative ease for the most part-if we actually care to do so-calculate the emissions 6 that our high

mobility lives generate and then with a couple of simple clicks and a credit card offset the burden we have placed on the environment perhaps supporting a bit of tree planting, or buying some low power light bulbs for an African village, thereby cleverly and easily absolving us of any lasting sense of guilt and side-stepping any deeper consideration of the real problem. It’s all very convenient and very typically tailored for our busy, solution focused lives and we buy it. It’s a simple enough equation, like buying indulgences for catholic sins.

We know ourselves to be basically decent people (subjective intention being more important than observed action when it comes to self-assessment) and our work which we value along some subjective measure relating to a combination of importance and necessity we do diligently. We run hard. We accept that work in a globalised economy involves a lot of travel and see the truth of that fact echoed in the behaviours of so many of those around us. Sure we emit carbon in pursuit of important goals but we know we’re good people with good intentions and somehow well, that’s life, that’s business and with a couple of tax deductible clicks we are assured that any damage done can be mitigated, even leave us feeling fairly good about ourselves, with the sense that we are doing something really positive in the world, that we are indeed the decent people we know ourselves to be.

I am not condemning offset schemes per se, they are good and necessary but they are also an insufficient means to address the real and pressing depth of the trouble we are in. The issue is that I think in general they allow us to duck too easily the really difficult conversations we need to have now. We don’t need to simply offset anymore, we need to actually reduce our emissions both drastically and urgently if we are to pass anything like a future onto our grandchildren. This is the real issue. The difficulty is that this requires that very difficult confrontation and conversation with ourselves- as private citizens and as larger organisations and of course the high emissions, high mobility lifestyle we are locked into mitigates heavily against that.

Rather than expecting those with the least to plant trees for us to support our un-amended but questionable lifestyles it would at least be interesting if the physical burden of offset actually came back to us directly. We would learn a lot more about trees and tree planting; we would get dirty, get fitter, feel the consequences of our actions in our backs and shoulders and very probably choose more carefully.

There is a strange ritual which many will be familiar with that takes place every time a European city hopper flight lands at Heathrow (or indeed any city anywhere). It can tell us a lot about life in our hyper-urgent world because it is so commonplace and in a strange way so unremarkable despite its absurdity. The ritual begins when the plane taxis to the stand and the cabin crew are told to ‘turn doors to manual and cross-check’. The plane comes to a stop and you can feel the passengers brace, rather like horses at a racetrack. Phones are pinging of course all over the place as the world presses in again after the temporary respite of the flight but the ping everyone is waiting for is the one that tells us the captain has switched off the seatbelt sign. The ping comes and then the most remarkable thing happens, not occasionally, but always- every time. With an urgency reserved usually only for fires and other life and death escapes everyone is up out of their seats as one, grabbing bags, coats and so forth whilst fiddling with a text message in the rush to get off the plane and on with the day. No doubt people have things to do but it seems to me to be a remarkable and disproportionate phenomenon. Superficially polite, the rush and jostle nonetheless too often hides a current of quiet irritability and entitlement as people wait impatiently for the cabin door to open whilst asserting rights to their position in the departing queue occasionally looking witheringly as someone –maybe someone not ‘in the know’ about the hurry we are all in who fails to retrieve their bag quickly enough…a kind of bizarre passive aggression exists in the drama that is I suppose inevitable where the deeper human need for time and space is so utterly compromised in such a casual way and where the typical confusion about status and role is exacerbated  by a temporary class system based entirely on money.

This strikes me as a more or less unconscious example of hyper-urgency amongst apparently intelligent people who without thought or unable to stop themselves simply must be up and at the next thing, to be first out of the plane, first up the gangway, first to passport control, first to the car or the taxi or the office or home or the meeting…always pursuing the next thing, driven by the invisible hand that tells us that every second counts without realising that this blind pressing and rushing  towards a future that never arrives makes every second actually count for nothing. It’s a small thing perhaps, this ritual, but a meaningful indication that in some sense we are at the end of the road. Something here, the reactivity, seems to say so much about our society and our times. There is so much that we need to pay attention to today, so much we could do and yet we are so distracted and caught up with ourselves so harried  in our urgency to get to the next self-evidently important thing that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

I recently returned from the Amazon Rainforest 7 where I was living with a tribe close to the border of Brazil and Peru and whilst there I was invited by the village elder to undertake a ‘dieta’. The dieta is a process by which a person in the village becomes over time, fit for the role of either a shaman or a village leader and later a recognised elder. Within the tradition of the people I was with there are four levels of dieta, beginning with the most simple and rudimentary progressing over many years to a final year long ordeal of isolation and endurance that is tremendously challenging and hard. The invitation given to me was to experience the first dieta in its 30 day form so that I could gain a little understanding of the way the village prepares its people for significant roles within the community and more importantly so that I could improve my life.  I accepted the invitation.

Essentially the dieta requires the candidate to live a life that is restricted in the intake of foods, liquids and other things. The process is conducted according to traditional guidelines and customs of the tribe, focusing attention on the development of the whole person-the trichotmous human being, constituted of body, mind and spirit.

To engage in the dieta I had to agree to certain things. I could not drink water for 30 days, nor could I eat anything sweet including fruits or anything containing any form of sugar. I could not eat red meat, bread or dairy products. I was to live in the community rather than in isolation (which is a core feature of the later dietas) eating only small amounts of prescribed foods at certain times and consuming a particular drink made by a woman who had been assigned to be my guardian. I could not share food and had to bury what I could not eat because no person or animal could share my plate. Alongside restrictions in food, alcohol was not permitted, nor was any form of sexual intimacy. Mentally I was to remain quiet and calm; I was told to avoid distractions and noisy places, encouraged to be outside in the forest and in nature as much as possible and to reflect on certain songs and stories of the people that would act for me as guides. The dieta was opened with a night of prayers by the village elder followed by my drinking a specially prepared, sacred drink called kaysuma. Over the course of the 30 days I was instructed to meditate and pray regularly especially at dawn and dusk -using a plant resin called Sepa to send my prayers to the spirits as smoke and a tobacco based powder known as rapeh that would ground me and clarify my thoughts. My life in a sense was to become a prayer.

When I finished the dieta I had lost a stone in weight, felt mentally sharper than I could recall feeling in years and felt spiritually connected both in a transcendent (divine without) and immanent (divine within) sense. Perhaps more importantly the dieta process itself, this period of focus, attention and heightened awareness provoked me somehow to think deeply and inwardly raising a number of very fundamental and consequential questions in regard to my basic place on the earth, my work, the climatic and environmental crisis and my part in it.

By extension it really made me think about the problem of how people like me, among the most privileged 10% can actually start to determinedly address our own behaviours. Specifically I decided to confront behaviours which are still everywhere encouraged, underwritten even demanded by the highly complex assumptions of high mobility, with its high emissions lock in; I wondered about how we might be able to quickly re-think our position, recognising our dependency on such a complex high carbon lifestyle, how we might act immediately to mitigate the damage we have done and continue to do. I wondered about how we could possibly get free of the tangled web we had weaved for ourselves and within which we now find ourselves stuck?

Despite what some may think who have not worked in the corporate space, actually in very large part the offices and meeting rooms, the senior management teams, boards and executive committees are populated by good people-decent people with familiar lives working hard, who know personal difficulty, may have come from tough places, know about family crises, joys and sorrows and so forth. I know many excellent leaders in organisations around the world who are greatly skilled who care deeply about their work and who seek every day to make a positive impact on society. Of course affluence and power can change things a lot, subtly desensitizing people, skewing their image of the world with a false sense of entitlement and expectation. Of course there are bullies, tyrants, fools, uncontrolled corporate warriors in it only for themselves, supporting industries that continue to blindly deny what so many of us know to be true about both the climate and environment yet don’t seem willing or able to weigh the consequences of their actions. Nonetheless, the fact is that most organisations and their people want to do some good and imagine they do. What I realise today-something that confused me for a long time- is that the issue of good  people in an organisational context is a bit of a distraction when we think about the global problem of climate change. After some reflection I think there is a formula that goes something like this in which we discover at least part of the crux of the global crisis.

Good people-running very hard-in the wrong direction.

For years I have spent my time working with good people running hard. In my first career in the field of addictions I think I was working with essentially good people who had lost themselves often for good reasons. In recent years as a consultant it extended to good people addicted to running hard. My issue for years in the corporate field has been the hidden personal cost to leaders, leadership teams and the wider organisation when running hard would itself become addictive, driven, unconscious behaviour- when our human capacity to cope was overwhelmed by the VUCA world that organisations generally inhabit. I was dedicated to the development of self-aware leadership, better workplaces, places that could connect soul and role, workplaces that had some dignity. In truth I don’t think I ever really thought deeply of the relevance of the wider organisations footprint in the world; what it actually did; when I did glimpse at it, I basically offset it. I was too busy rescuing individuals, I wanted to help people feel better, to be good and do well. Now I realise that alongside these things, which remain important to me, there is a more pressing question relating to what the organisation is actually contributing to and what the individuals’ role is in this. I had discovered the urgent concern of wrong direction. This insight has been pivotal for me.

In the forest, I was struck again and again by my own insignificance. The forest is large in every conceivable sense of the word and during my time there it right sized me thoroughly giving me a remarkable chance to take a long hard look at myself and the assumptions by which I have lived my life. I recall that I engaged deeply with a question about what it was about my particular life and work that I felt gave me special dispensation- more than others-to use up a disproportionate amount of our remaining shared global carbon budget as I so chose without any serious reflection on the consequences or indeed on the purpose of the work I was doing. It turned out to be a case in point, my first, of a good person running hard, in the wrong direction. I had no measure for the cost/benefit of my work that would include in any way our shared global crisis but I turned a blind eye based on that clever hidden assumption I mentioned earlier- that I knew myself to be a good person who would not seek to do harm and who saw himself as doing good. I was up against that old problem of intention and action again-call it the ‘say-do index’.  In the end I had to conclude that neither I nor my work was ultimately ‘special’ and that I had no right to continue to act unreflectively, delivering work that too often actually ensured that companies remained caught in a model of work that was basically BAU.

Asking tough questions. It’s a good place to begin. We know we are good people mostly. We know we run hard. What about the direction of travel? It would be interesting if more individuals, organisations, consultancies, facilitators, business schools and so on who fly to or fly in, masses of people all the time to hone and develop their business skills, their company vision or strategy, to gain this or that diploma or degree, were to re-think the notion of special dispensation in relation to direction of travel. Does what you do (not say) accord with, for example, the SDGs as a basic tenet?  Is the work you are doing, the stuff you are producing, designing, building, teaching, authorising, actually helping in a meaningful sense, to address the biggest single crisis that humanity has ever faced or is it really more old stuff, more BAU that you offset because you’re a good person running hard? What story do you tell about this, to yourself, to others?

An inconvenient truth indeed.

The dieta showed me a lot about what a choice to restrict ones consumption can bring. What seems and is actually restricting and at times a lot of hard work is ultimately liberating because it makes choice making-in an endless sea of choices- easier. The dieta was a particular practice bound in ritual, supported by others including elders that came at a precise moment in my own life. It addressed my trichotmous nature supporting me to experience directly the fact that I am a subtle and complex mix of body, mind and spirit- a process that made it very different from a purely physical diet. This realisation affected me deeply. We are in reality physical, mental and spiritual beings and the loss of the interplay of this knowledge and wisdom lies I believe at the heart of the crisis we are in-a crisis ultimately of terrible and grievous separation. That we seek ways to recover a sense of our wholeness- call it our personal and shared integrity-matters greatly as we move forwards today and it has implications for how we care about our physical health, how we use our mental capacity for discernment, for contemplation, reflection and so forth, and how we define our spiritual lives.

One consequence of hyper-urgent living is emotional numbness which might be understood as something like an inability to feel or decipher one’s actual feelings about anything. In a numb state we may be emotional but it’s an odd sort of emotionality that trades real feeling, say grief or sorrow for a kind of sentimentality, useful anger for bickering, yelling and cynicism, joy of life for the pleasures of distraction, immediate highs, packaged experiences and quick fixes. There is numbness deep in the city hopper aeroplane ritual.

If it is true that 10% of the global population generates 50% of the total carbon emissions, in the name of equality it demands that we who have look at ourselves and that we take action now. We have to learn to feel again.The least well off will be first to feel the brunt of our failure to choose differently but future generations much closer to home will not escape. We will not hear either of them so it must be a conscious choice that we make before sanctions force the issue, by which time it will be too late. We each need to find a creative meaningful way to take our part in the struggle we are in for the future of the human project. It really doesn’t start anywhere else other than now and here with each of us. Someone somewhere makes a placard and with no hope at all, walks out and stands in front of a local government building populated by disinterested officials’ campaigning alone every day with the same clear message. That’s how things actually happen, that’s how the say-do index finally shifts. If they do it enough, with enough persistence and courage, unimaginable things it would seem, are still possible.


  3. ibid

“100% renewable, decarbonisation, climate neutrality and a 2 ton personal carbon budget pledge by mid-century, linked with ambitious action in the short-term, are the only kinds of serious long-term targets which will give us a reasonable chance of keeping below 2 degrees and drive the innovation and investment necessary for us to get there.” Mark Kenber CEO Climate Group

  2. One of my last international flights. I will miss my friends and family in the village very much.

Helpful Video Links

Because its not a Drill: Jem Bendell

We are Striking to Disrupt the System: Greta Thunberg on Democracy Now

Scientists Warning at the Foresight Group EU Commission.Stuart Scott and Alison Green

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Wisdom and Education

This Creation, the whole changeful natural order with all its apparent collisions, cruelties and waste yet springs from an ardour, an immeasurable love, a perpetual donation, which generates it, upholds it, drives it. We live in a world produced not by mechanical necessity but by passionate desire-Evelyn Underhill

I was recently re-reading an essay entitled ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’ by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in which he writes;

‘He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centred ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas’

A principle effect of contemplative practice is to temper our bias for action, what we might call the active life, with a more receptive position whose work it is to attend to the complexity and uniqueness of our inner experience. The practice of contemplation represents a choice to deliberately put time aside to develop ones’ inner capacities in order to live more effectively and fully in the world (call it stage development or greater complexity in business language) and thereby to lift up the good and reduce the harm we can do to ourselves and one another. The dangers inherent  in assuming or being granted power and  authority without sufficient capacity for interior reflection is what Merton is getting at in the passage I have quoted and its consequences are visible everywhere. When we have power with insufficient insight (without a wide enough appreciation of the nature of Self and reality) it is hard to act in ways that do no harm, let alone good, since we cannot see beyond our own limitations, prejudices, impulses, wants and needs. We remain subject to the excesses of our personality, our egoic drives, constrained by the level of our ego development with no connection to the guiding intelligence that lies outside our self-created limitations. Contemplative practice assumes a broader spectrum of consciousness than that generally supported by our contemporary bias for the rational, allowing also for guidance from both the transpersonal and mystical states.

Contemplation is derived from the word templum, to mean a piece of consecrated ground put aside (that is in no way utilitarian) for the purposes of inner reflection and development. What such a space would look like in the context of leadership development is worth considering. Making space for contemplation may well seem questionable at first blush in the context of the intensely active and demanding nature of modern work practices, but there is a pearl of great price to be found there as the philosopher Joseph Pieper notes;

It is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use. So is it also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight and gives meaning to every practical act of life

As we consider the landscape of leadership today, we might find real value in thinking about the ways in which we hold the tension between contemplation and a world of action, giving some time to consider the value that might lie in engaging in  practices that are at once ‘useless and the yardstick of every possible use’.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; WB Yates

 That we live in unparalleled times is well understood. The intensity, frequency and amplitude of change affecting our lives have increased exponentially in the context of rapid globalisation and the digital capacity to communicate news in minutes rather than days. There is considerable evidence that leadership at the most senior levels is overwhelmed and unable to cope in the face of these forces and senior roles seem to be becoming less tenable and less attractive in the face of the frequent failure of top management to execute effectively in a constantly changing environment.

Change of course is happening everywhere but to what effect? One CEO recently said to me at the conclusion of a 9 month cycle of business transformation, ‘’we’ve seen change but haven’t seen improvement’. In a conversation recently with Nik Gowing the BBC correspondent who co-authored with Chris Langdon the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants research paper titled Thinking the Unthinkable-a new imperative for leadership in a digital age, he told me of one CEO who said;

The rate of change we are going through is comparable to what happens at war time-yet we think we are at peace. The global pace of change is overwhelming the capacity of national and international institutions to cope’

The research that Gowing and Langdon undertook consisted of 60 in-depth private interviews with senior leaders from the corporate and public sectors and their conclusions are very telling. The executive summary begins:

‘A proliferation of ‘unthinkable’ events over the previous two years has revealed a new fragility at the highest levels of corporate and public service leaderships. Their ability to spot, identify and handle unexpected, non-normative events is shown not just to be wanting but also perilously inadequate at critical moments. The overall picture is deeply disturbing’

The authors described 2014 as ‘a great wake up’ and site examples of ‘unthinkable’ events during that time including the seizure of Crimea by President Putin, the rise of Islamic State, the outbreak of Ebola, a 60% fall in oil prices and the cyber-attack on Sony. The refugee and migrant crisis and the failure at VW are further examples of ‘unthinkable’ events and today as I write this, I do so from a United Kingdom that has entered a torrid and protracted process to leave the European Union after 40 years.

What is compelling about the research is the conclusion that, despite the evidence, there is a ‘deep reluctance’, an ‘executive myopia’ to ‘contemplate that unthinkables might happen, let alone how to handle them’. By and large they say, ‘mind-sets, behaviours and systems are not yet adequately calibrated for the new reality’. The feeling reported again and again at the highest board and C-suite levels is one of overwhelm.

It seems that in some very real way we have become a civilisation at perpetual war with itself either metaphorically or literally. Steven Pinker recently made the well-publicised point that literal war is in fact greatly decreasing in the world today. Whilst I would not discredit such findings as symptomatic of an important and constructive shift I think it ignores the nature of the hidden war we are engaged in every day as described by the CEO above and the consequences of that war (the battle for growth, business advantage, survival, resources and such like) on so many people’s daily life as it is experienced at work. The consequences of this state of conflict are serious and potentially catastrophic. Scenario planners looking out towards 2035 are considering the very real possibility that our current trajectory is towards the collapse of civilisation as we currently understand it. This is not simply seen as one possible scenario but as the most likely. Doing more of what we know will not turn this around.

We must ask ourselves with Yeats in mind what kind of centre we can create that might hold in times like these. Thus, though it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a debate about urgent change could include discussion of things sacred and holy and of practices such as contemplation as a means to addressing the crisis we are in, so it must be. Given that one apparent and stark effect of modern living for so many is the sense that Marianne Robinson describes as ’joyless urgency’ in the face of ‘economic servitude’, we should consider what it means for a human being to live well and engage with disciplines whose purpose it is to think about such things.

The Myths we live by

Did you bring the breast feather?

I didn’t no.

I did he said, showing it to me.

So you were the man I met on the path. You were the tramp whose conscience was mouldering.

No answer came from a downdraught of smoke that covered him

I waited for him to emerge


What ails you I asked, what troubles you? 


John Moriarty


A myth is a thing of mystery and yet of tremendous practical benefit to those it serves. Mythos as a counterpoint to Logos has been essential to every culture on earth as a way of making sense of the great questions that we hold about life. Through myth we can encounter the world anew in ways that cannot be known rationally. Ralph Waldo Emerson was thinking about the role of myth when he wrote;

It is the largest part of a man that is not inventoried. He has many enumerable parts: he is social, professional, political, sectarian and literary, in this or that set or corporation. But after the most exhausting census has been made, there remains as much more which no tongue can tell. And this remainder is that which interests.

We know intuitively what Emerson is getting at here. He is speaking to the range of our experience that is subjective, personal and relational, that speaks to an essential knowledge that informs our philosophy, morals and ethics, that is not accessible to clocks and rulers. Mythic language gives us access to realms long hidden to the analytic mind. Myth speaks in the language of symbol, metaphor and poetry and it speaks of the great themes in ways that offer us a living place in a living universe; creation, and destruction, death and rebirth, the great cosmic wheel are all mythic subjects. We make sense of things through story and we live out our lives as stories and storytellers. In times such as ours when the old story begins to fail, when the centre doesn’t hold, we are called to re-imagine the story we are in and to tell it anew around the campfires of our lives.

In an interview given in 2013, Betty Sue Flowers talked about the duelling myths of business. Flowers is well equipped to discuss myth and business in the same breath following a long career as a strategist with Royal Dutch Shell and  having been tasked with editing ‘The Power of Myth’ in 1988- a record of the interviews that took place between Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell on PBS.

A myth as Flowers describes it, is essentially ‘a view of the nature of reality so prevalent that it goes unseen.’ In her reading, any myth can become so imbued with life that it moves from its proper metaphorical place (as symbolic guide in the relationship between the unconscious and conscious worlds) to a literal position (dogma of the conscious mind) to become  ‘the truth’ for the one living in it, thereby providing the context within which all events are framed. In a world unfamiliar with the power of myth and mythic language this movement from metaphoric and symbolic in-forming to literalism is both easily done and fatally dangerous

Flowers suggests that there are 5 essential myths that shape the world of decision makers, all of which have strengths and limitations, the latter often being unconscious to those who live out of the primary myth they favour. These she describes as the economic, ecological, scientific, heroic and religious myths.

Business, says Flowers, is a human creation borne out of the economic myth which supports the principle of endless growth and the idea that the optimum situation is to become as large as possible. The economic myth values products over people  and  sees high consumption as a preferred end in itself, measuring affluence or ‘standard of living’ against such things as financial income and relative purchasing power. The danger as Flowers sees it is that the economic myth leads to ‘single lines of measurements of success such as revenues, profits and market size. Those will eventually decline at some point because all systems have limits-and once they start to fall they fall fast’. It seems plausible that much of the acceleration and intensity of change felt by and within organisations is a failing attempt to avoid this decline which is not fully understood since those living within the myth cannot see it any more than a fish knows the water it is swimming in. I imagine also that part of the issue today with ‘unthinkable’ events is that they cannot be understood or resolved within the existing economic myth described here. The data as it is experienced within that narrow frame appears chaotic which is to say -too complex for our understanding (rather than ultimately unintelligible) and is experienced as overwhelming.

In Flowers mind all of the myths are ultimately limited when literalised and taken in isolation. The scientific myth-the search for truth through reason proposes that there is an absolute rational knowledge available to humanity even if not yet known. It rejects those that challenge the myth as ‘emotional.’ The heroic myth, when it loses its nuance of separation, descent and return, merely separates the world into winners and losers and increases the sense of vulnerability amongst those who don’t win. The ecological myth, de-coupled from its archetypal feminine, Gaian roots looks at the whole system, its interdependencies and complex interrelationships but can gets lost in excessive expenditure as it seeks to hear everyone’s voice, resulting in gridlock. The religious myth whose essence is profound spiritual revelation becomes over-simplified and runs the risk of rejecting dissenting views which are seen as dangerous in the face of dogmatism, ritualism and religious fervour.

Flowers contends that many of the challenges we face today are a result of conflicts arising from voices representing different and seemingly competing myths unable to hear or see the limitations of their own viewpoint or appreciate the others stance. I would go further and say that in order to re-imagine myth we must reclaim our inheritance for thinking and communicating with the language and consciousness of myth itself which is no small task. Nonetheless, I would agree with her that greater insight can arise if there is appetite for dialogue between mythic positions. In business terms this would amount for example, to a different conversation between those representing the economic and ecological myths as a means to tempering the principle of growth with participation and greater systems thinking. It would invoke a new discussion on what winning means and how it is measured from the heroic perspective and from a religious perspective what it means to live a good life. All of this could be informed by the discipline and rigor of science and its own fundamental interest in seeking truth.

The violence of modern life

‘Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.’ Parker Palmer

Violence is joined at the hip with suffering. There is so much about modern living that is in one way or another violent, passively inhuman or worse and if we are to address it, it will require us to think differently about the nature of suffering itself.

There is a story within the religious paradigm about a Prince who grew up in the Himalayas. He was a greatly gifted child who excelled in sports and was quick, brave and yet tender hearted. It was said that he would become an emperor or renounce the world for a great spiritual destiny. His father the King, wishing to ensure that he fulfil his destiny as an emperor gave him all he wanted but insisted he stay within the walls of the palace so that he not be disturbed by the ways of the world. He lived thus, a life of luxury and ease, surrounded by opulence. Eventually he married a beautiful young woman and they had a son.

In time however, despite having all he could wish for in material terms, the young man’s heart became restless and he wanted to know about life beyond the palace walls. He had many questions which could not be answered within the palace itself. Has life a purpose or is it just a fleeting show? Is there nothing beyond the material trappings of success? Eventually he persuaded a servant to take him out and it was this radical exposure to the raw humanity of the world that transformed him by transforming the nature of his inquiry. During the day he saw other faces of life until then utterly unfamiliar to him, in the form of sickness, old age and death. He asked if such things would someday affect him, his wife and child and the servant replied that they would, that there was no escape. On the way home he saw a holy man seated in meditation and asked the servant what he was doing. The servant explained that this man had foregone conventional ideas of success and was engaged in practices to better understand the nature of reality. In some distress the young prince returned home and concluded that all life was change; He reflected;

Everything is change. Each moment comes and goes. Is there nothing more, nothing to the future but decline and death?

Returning home, the Prince, whose name was Siddhartha, found that the pleasures of the palace had lost their meaning. Nothing-no amount of distraction- could bring him peace and he decided to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the true nature of life. He left the Palace one midnight, shedding the trappings of the royal life and assumed the life of a wandering mendicant. One night many years later the Prince achieved a degree of insight so profound that he became enlightened. He was known thereafter as Guatama Buddha meaning literally, one who is awake. 

At the heart of the story of the life of the Buddha and his subsequent teachings is recognition that change is pervasive and that suffering is a fundamental principle of life. Thus we can conclude that ‘waking up’ is intimately connected to our subjective feeling for and experience of real suffering-our own and others-and that it is possible to go through life ‘asleep’ in some way distracting ourselves endlessly from the experience of what it is to live fully.

Suffering, from the Buddhist perspective occurs because we very often do not get what we want and when we do get what we want it very often goes again against our will. The world and everything in it is transitory and will pass away and we suffer in the face of this truth not so much as a result of the fact of this reality but because of our attachment to and craving for things that cannot last. Buddhist practice from one perspective essentially represents a body of psychological processes based on reasoning and experience through which it becomes possible to identify and follow a path towards ‘liberation’-which it holds as the purpose of life. The processes entailed include a profound confrontation with suffering in its many forms, its causes, the possibility of its ceasing and the path towards that end. What typically initiates the process is the recognition of the temporal nature of life and the grief, fear and anger that such recognition entails. At root, we each must die. In a world obsessed with physical survival that is shocking news.

Much of our consumer world is specifically designed, through distraction, to keep this truth from us (we do it to ourselves) but the consequence is a different kind of listless malaise and servitude that greatly diminishes our life experience. VUCA (meaning volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) as a popular acronym for business life describes a world of flux, much as Buddhism describes it, but falls short of buddhist sensibilities and creates more suffering as an experience because it lacks the compensatory story and practices that mitigate the tendency towards manic, ceaseless, blind action. Without a capacity for reflection and contemplation we cannot make sense of our suffering or recognise the inherent unity of life within the flux.

In order to embrace life on its own terms in an ever changing world, we must be prepared to feel and learn to formulate questions that speak to the deepest concerns that each of us holds. The real gift of suffering is found in its Latin root ‘passione’. Our suffering and our passion are essentially one thing. What we are truly passionate about-how we would really wish to express ourselves in the world- is intimately informed by our suffering, by what grieves us and grief itself is rooted in intimate relationship to its counterpoints of joy and love. Once we know how to suffer well we can extend that knowing to others as Compassion-literally meaning, ‘to suffer with’. As the writer Stephen Jenkinson puts it,

‘Grief is our way of loving what has slipped from view, Love is our way of grieving what is yet to do so’.

If violence and suffering are joined at the hip, it is also true for grief and love.

In embracing our suffering, and this is the value of the contemplative attitude, though it seems counter-intuitive, we embrace our lives more fully since we can both grieve and love what matters to us in our lives while those things are with us and after they inevitably fall away and die.

Disconnection is the malaise of our times. In the conversation with Nick Gowing I suggested that the real challenge that his research brings forward lies not in thinking the unthinkable but in feeling the unthinkable. The problem we have in modern business life is not a problem of the head but rather of the heart-more specifically of the capacity for connection and relatedness.  Part of the issue with the ‘unthinkable world’ is just that- thinking as a form of knowing is necessary but not sufficient to the times we are in. We are dealing with a quality of crisis that does not lie solely in the territory of the head; more thinking, analysis and so forth, isn’t going to work on its own. To be with the unthinkable we will have to explore different forms of intelligence including our own capacity for deep feeling. We will have to let the terrible grief that we have buried about the shared state we are in touch us and move us if we are to change the way we live together, if we are to admit and acknowledge the truth of  the harm we have done, our complicity in it and from that place consider a different alternative. What is unthinkable is just that; it must be felt.

A good Life

All during the course of our lives we struggle to catch up with ourselves. We are so taken up, so busy and distracted, that we cannot dedicate enough time or recognition to the depths within us. We endeavour to see ourselves and meet ourselves yet there is so much complexity in us and so many layers to the human heart that we rarely encounter ourselves. John O Donohue

In the language of medieval western mysticism we live our lives in what was once called status viatoris, meaning ‘in the state of being on the way’. The movement of a lifetime-the movement towards becoming fully human was thought to conclude in a further condition described as status comprehensoris or ‘one who has comprehended’. I suspect that this is, in essence, a very similar state and goal to that described in Buddhism where buddh literally means to be ‘one who is awake’.

Another way of describing status viatoris is pilgrim or one who is on a pilgrimage. It offers up a different way of thinking if we were to imagine that each of us is in fact on a pilgrimage- called our lifetime. It has a strange quality to it, at once solitary and particular and at the same time, intimately shared. Pilgrimage is not at root, utilitarian, it is unfolding, surprising, sacred.Each of us, say the mystics, find ourselves somewhere on a trail or path marked by the absence of fulfilment and the orientation towards fulfilment that are the negative and positive aspects of viator.  What an exquisite and poignant image. Who would deny the sanctity of such a journey and the need for reflection on it? The implications for such an insight into how we live together, support one another and what we choose to value are profound.

There are many ways to imagine what a good life might mean but there is no culture of depth that stops at and is satisfied with the simplistic equation we make between the possession of material goods, financial wealth and ultimate happiness. This viewpoint, albeit pervasive in western society, is lazy in the extreme. It is the height of irony that we should work so slavishly to uphold a mythos that dulls the mind and diminishes the soul, that incites bland, unthinking consumerism as a human good,that leaves our children ill prepared for real life and generates so much despair and hopelessness. Still there we are. Given the level of distress this story generates both privately and publicly, given that it has led our human project to the brink of destruction, it is reasonable to conclude that we must look elsewhere to understand what a good life might be.

The roots of western culture offer more fertile ground for this kind of conversation. Aristotle proposed that a good life essentially was one that led to happiness or more literally ‘flourishing’. Essentially this state-which he called eudeamonia, represented the proper fulfilment of the potential of a life or living a life worth living according to the human tendency towards becoming wholly oneself. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps one of the greatest western philosophers, assented to this view though he took it further in considering the ultimate good as beatitude (the knowing and enjoying of God). According to both, our primary moral imperative is to recognise what we are and act accordingly based on a natural disposition towards what is good, extending this insight to others through the work of virtue and conscience. We achieve this through the particular faculties that mark us out uniquely as human beings-namely through practical reasoning, will and understanding. Here we find resonance again with oriental thought, with the Buddhist imperative for living well simply expressed as ‘cease to do evil, try to do good’.

Thus we have the basis of an ethical life which essentially means to think and act in ways that are not contrary to what we are ‘meant’ to be and to do no ‘harm’. Each depth culture has a way of expressing this truth, a different cosmology for understanding a good life but flourishing as a principle is at the heart of any society and culture that is rooted and strong. To experience this as real in our own lives of course requires effort and discipline. The call for inner work and community building will fall like seed on stony ground in any culture that has devalued the inner life and that is certainly a problem today in western societies. Nonetheless we must as Merton asks of us, hold the tension between the importuning of our inner life and a world of action creatively. The two ways of engaging are analogous to a good life-we must be actors and we must reflect on our action. To reflect in flight is not sufficient which is why so much of what passes for leadership development falls short of what is required. As long as the urgent needs of daily business disrupt and undermine serious reflective time the tail is wagging the dog and the current crisis will persist. Nothing can be loved at speed. ‘Hurrying’ as the mythologist Michael Meade put it, ‘does not gather wisdom.’  Understanding of what it means to live a good life arises and is deepened through discipline and practice which includes the work of self-reflection and contemplation undertaken in solitude and community.

Becoming Adult.

As a pioneer in human consciousness, a pathway borne unexpectedly out of his subjective and initially frightening spontaneous out of body experiences  Robert Monroe, dedicated his life to understanding what it means for us to ‘grow up’ as a person with ‘consciousness’ in the widest possible sense. He synthesised his understanding by suggesting that we can measure human growth in three principle ways; the movement towards adulthood out of innocence, the development of maturity and the cultivation of wisdom. Monroe contended that in the main most people stopped growing (in the sense of moving towards fulfilment) before the end of their 20s, something that I think is reflected in the research by Kegan and Lahey on stage development in leadership in their book Immunity to Change. Few of us ever mature our capacity for complexity beyond what they describe as a socialised mind set.

Monroe proposed that we measure adulthood by the degree to which we assume authority and accept responsibility for our lives. He used the example of a child touching a stove and burning themselves to explain. In burning themselves the child loses their innocence in relationship to touch stove, burn. Thereafter they assume authority for themselves in relation to the stove and accept responsibility for touching the hot stove in the future. In this was we gradually lose our innocence in life as we gain experience in all manner of ways and the position of adulthood is conferred to the degree that we accept authority and take responsibility for the life we lead. In conversation with Nick Gowing it was striking to me when he used the word deresponsibilisation to describe what he experienced during his research. At heart, according to Gowing, the failure of industry in the face of unthinkable events  was not simply the state of overwhelm but also  what he described as ‘wilful blindness, group think, institutional conformity, risk aversion reactionary mind sets, denial and the fear of making career limiting moves’. To the extent that there is a vacuum of responsibility at senior levels of industry born of a tragic myopia, there is also by definition an absence of adulthood.

Maturity, Monroe suggested, could be measured as ‘the number and quality of illusions that we discard over a lifetime.’ He was at pains to point out the difference between illusions that we discard deliberately and the experience of sudden disillusionment by which our view of reality is ripped from us through some kind of violence or abuse. The work of maturity is a conscious and considered act engendering wherever possible a dynamic, creative and deliberate to and from between our conscious and unconscious modes of awareness. This was what CG Jung referred to as the process of individuation; the giving up of certain strongly held positions in favour of a broader view of life constitutes the act of discarding illusions. This can be painful of course when certain strongly held views cut close to the bone but Monroe would contend that it is absolutely necessary that we challenge our own perceptions and be prepared to expand our understanding, putting aside what experience shows us is no longer true or sufficient to account for our understanding of life. In keeping with Monroe’s work it has been the central tenet of many of the major religions to understand the nature of reality behind appearance and to conjecture that the phenomenal world of form is in some essential way illusory, something that quantum physicists are now proving to be so.

Finally, wisdom, according to Monroe, is the experience we each have of thinking, acting and being as a result of the illusions we have discarded. Freedom, Monroe, suggested, is our experience relative to the extent that these three measures of growth are developed over a lifetime

Unity in Distinction

Truth is one. The wise call it by different names- Rig Veda

For a future to be possible it is fundamental that we embrace the possibility of a synthesis of previously distinct ‘myths for living’. In the course of his life’s work, which was dedicated towards a synthesis of religious understanding between Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim perspectives, the monastic Bede Griffiths used the term unity in distinction to express a condition whereby something is at once distinct in its own right and yet absolutely unified at the same time with something else. In his study of Christianity he applied this perspective to the relationship between Christ the person and God as understood in the phrase ‘I and the Father are one.’ In exploring this relationship Griffiths was working with the Hindu principle of advaita, or non-dualism which expresses the relationship between God and persons in terms of cause and effect. The nature of unity in distinction is paradoxical in nature and calls for an acceptance of difference and advaitic commonality. Speaking of the need for such a synthesis of viewpoints he wrote;

‘On this depends the union of East and West and the future of humanity. We must try to see the values in each (religious revelation)… distinguish their differences and to discover their harmony, going beyond the differences in an experience of non-duality or transcendence of dualities.

Embracing paradox and what we might call ‘otherness’ demands that we think with sufficient complexity to embrace the position of both/and rather than either/or as a normative position for today’s problems. We can learn much from Griffiths’ work in the field of religious tolerance and understanding. We must learn to see events from other and multiple perspectives- a hallmark of what Kegan and Lahey call the self-transforming mind. Paradox brings greater subtlety to our current rendering of the forces at work in business that we often describe as VUCA.  Paradox asks us to hold the big questions of our experience, the relationship between time and eternity, flux and unity, being and becoming in more thoughtful ways.

Homo sapiens sapiens

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an idea whose time has come-Nation August 1943

Even as we crave solutions to unfathomable problems so we continue to indulge our addictions to speed, to urgency, to intensity, to the belief that we will find the answer by doing more of the very things that have created the mess we are in. The poet Yates is right when he tells us that the centre cannot hold. The scrabble for survival is rooted deep in each of us and we know it in its worst excesses as fear and rage, fear that we might die one day and rage because we know indeed that we must die and with that lose all the things we have loved and cherished. What a strange predicament. In a world that cherishes youthfulness above all else, that thereby traps the natural initiatory passage to maturity in a perpetual sort of adolescence we are now so ill equipped to work with the forces of death. yet it remains a perennial truth that if something is to be born out of  crisis, then something indeed will need to die, be given up, sacrificed.

In a world in thrall to literalism the literal death of our human project seems sometimes to be almost inevitable and yet it doesn’t have to be so. If it is true that we must sacrifice something great in order to change, if we can grasp that as an archetypal and mythological truth then we move into a different order of understanding in regard to our predicament. To sacrifice means to make sacred and it is an act of ritual that is in essence both practical and non-rational. It is an act whereby something is given up that something else might live and indeed flourish. Sacrifice is a word that imbues both the community it serves and the wider world with life and provides the sense of mutual agency which can counter the despair of private addiction, the urgency to fix things, the belief that someone else will or can fix it without our personal contribution, effort and commitment.

That we must try to find the answer to the intractable problems of our time makes sense  but we might ask- for what purpose. What is the vision of humanity that we hold that could unite our efforts to live well together on this earth. What does it mean to live well together? What we experience all about us are the multitude of effects resulting from choices we have made about what it means to be human beings on earth but what are the causes? It’s a question that requires a great deal of thought and that requires dialogue between those who hold widely differing views but it’s important that we ask the question and create environments where such questions can be held with the gravity necessary to the task at hand. What does unity in diversity mean today?

The study and integration of the principles put forward here; the varieties of religious and spiritual teachings and practices, the mythic perspectives of Betty Sue Flowers and a mythic language for the world in general terms, the insights of poetry and the arts, Robert Monroe’s measure of adulthood and Bede Griffiths’ unity in distinction offer the basis of a contemplative education that could act as a counter-weight to the current drive for action and the bias for an approach to problems that is yet in thrall to a fundamentally western scientific approach marked by objectivity, hyper-rationality and over-analysis. Whilst not ‘wrong’ per se, a bias that marginalises the wisdom inherent in transpersonal and mystical modes of consciousness represents a profound problem that limits our perspective catastrophically, the effects of which are clear in Gowing and Langdon’s research.

In my mind, the work of change is not to get smarter or faster, it is to become more fully human and engage honestly with the immensity of what that means, to embrace the mystery of all that we are. We must step outside the palace walls and see humanity raw, in all its terrible beauty and know that it is in fact a mirror for us and our own lives. Merton called this kind of education ‘sapiential’ meaning literally (the development of) wisdom. Such an educational agenda, based in contemplative practice, seeks to illuminate and deepen our understanding of what it means to live a good life in the company of others, what it means to become homo-sapiens sapiens. The purpose of contemplative inquiry is to penetrate into the reality of things and to live in accord with the authentic insights thus attained. Practices typical in a contemplative context such as prayer and meditation properly understood are not about upholding dogma but about the discovery of the self. Words such as sacred, holy or divine express intuitions about the dimensions of a life that stretch far beyond our rational world but that are no less ‘real’ for all that.

It is the movement towards wholeness and our participation in that movement that transforms the mundane world into something sacred. Wholeness derived from the German hale shares the same root as healing. As WB Yeats once put it, ‘there is another world, and it is this one’. The possibility for a better way of living surrounds us even now if we have the eyes and heart to see it. Desecration is what happens when we disavow this movement and fall short of our potential. The root of despair is in the final reckoning, not to realise what we truly are and what our real purpose is on earth.

In the summary of their research Gowing and Langdon call for greater courage and humility in the face of the current leadership crisis. This does not mean greater heroics. Courage in this context is a call for greater heart-fullness or wholeheartedness. Humility as a virtue was in ancient times balanced with the virtue of magnanimity which offers a very different rendering of the heroic desire to win at all costs. Magnanimity is the aspiration of the spirit to great things, an ethical capacity to decide at any moment, in favour of what is the greater possibility of the human potentiality for being. Humility properly understood was a profound awareness of the inexpressible distance between the Creator and the person. It shares its root with hummus which means, to be of the earth and it takes form sometimes in human beings as kneeling and prostration before a mystery that can never be known. The two virtues together provided the root of the greater virtue of Hope whose guiding principle along with Faith and Love were considered the highest expressions of a human life.

In 1914, the English mystic Evelyn Underhill published a little book called ‘Practical Mysticism’. The book went to press in the first weeks of the Great War and as she writes;

‘Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the ‘contemplative’ attitude to existence is wholly out of place’

How can a book that is underpinned by a deep conviction of the dependence of human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of a divine spirit within the human soul-which lies at the heart of a mystical life-be reconciled with ‘the human history now being poured red hot from the cauldron of war’

And yet it does. The art of the poet-certainly that of the mystic is the art of union with Reality, with both the flux of life and with the whole. I suspect that most of us have had what Wordsworth called ‘intimations of mortality’,moments when we lose ourselves in an experience we cannot name, when the world took on a strangeness indescribable, heightened, unusual, a sudden parting of the conceptual veil. It is a sad reflection of our times that neuro-science, in the grip of Neo-Darwinism has reduced the depth of human experience to the firing of ‘packets of neurons’. The great mysteries of our experience the strange sense that we have about the meaning and purpose of a lifetime-the call to discovery, the paradoxical movement between being and becoming, eternity and time, unity and multiplicity, spirit and matter, the great concerns of humanity since the beginning cannot really be reduced to words such as ‘merely’ or ‘simply’ without missing something tremendous.

If the doors of perception were cleansed said William Blake, we would see things as they truly are-infinite. To see things as they truly are is the fundamental work of leadership today because what springs from what the Buddhists call ‘right view’ is a quality of humanity that might better evaluate what work really means and how we might better embrace it. It might even allow us to uphold and secure a healthy world for future generations.


  1. When I speak of soul I mean ‘the principle of life’ or that which animates us and makes us human beings as distinct from anything else. Speaking of the sacred I mean that which is incomprehensible and nameless (call it non-dual reality, Atman, Tao, the Void, the Truth, the Word-whatever name we give to that which cannot be named) but that can be felt or known indirectly as mystery. In regard to holy, I mean that which is or moves towards wholeness and unity, out of the flux of our daily material life. Both the sacred and holy are marked out in this rendering as non-utilitarian which is to say, of no immediate economic or practical value. The practice of contemplation and the embrace of silence represent human practices by which we come to a deeper understanding of our lives and an appreciation of the lives of all things in the context of a world that can be partially though not completely known.


  1. As an example of sapiential education EF Shumacher wrote many years ago about the principles of what he described as ‘Buddhist economics’. It is interesting that his paper received a sudden growth in interest after 9/11 and it is telling-such is the level of myopia in industry and government-that little has changed since then despite the dire warnings of 2008. At heart such an economics is based on optimal rather than maximum levels of consumption and seeks to balance the human aspiration for liberation with meeting the needs for physical well-being. Work itself is seen as part of the natural life of a person, nourishing and enlivening a person to produce the best they are capable of. In line with Buddhist teachings this economics recognises that it is not wealth that is the issue but attachment to wealth, not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. At root Schumacher describes Buddhist economics as a system based on ‘simplicity and non-violence.’ Such a world view is apparently juxtaposed to the modern economic assumption that consumption is the ‘sole end and purpose of all economic activity’ but this is where we must begin. To follow Bede Griffith’s example, there must be a courageous commitment to dialogue between those people who represent and live in apparently competing myths. If Robert Monroe is right then we must each attend to and discard those illusions that prevent us from developing the level of complexity required to live in these extraordinary times.
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Eyes to acres: On Person and Community

The first purpose of organisational life is to support human flourishing.

To flourish or thrive is a natural consequence of any living thing that is able to grow and develop in conditions appropriate to it. Good crops are the natural result of good soil and an understanding of the seasons, planting times and so forth. What grows well does so in relationship with the surroundings that support it and the development of human persons is subject to these same natural principles.

There is a great deal of difference in the principles of education and understanding that lead to the development of individuals rather than persons, a collective rather than a community. Underpinning the direction of that process is a founding principle of relationship or connection. Real connection is based on our viewpoint or vision-put otherwise-how we see the world ,which in turn is subject to our understanding of life and its purposes.As William Blake wrote, ‘the eye altering, alters all’, and it is through the eye  as Blake meant it that we make sense of the world as essentially interconnected or divided.

The development of the whole person as distinct from the individual, and its consequential expression in community is underpinned by the incorporation of the principle of unity in its developmental philosophy. To be more precise it is the experience of unity in distinction which reflects our capacity to see and know what is unique within what connects and to learn to value or at least tolerate that uniqueness or difference based on an understanding that the balancing principle that makes our uniqueness possible and so important is that which connects us fundamentally as One.

This understanding takes us beyond the experience of the collective or the individual which experiences its world as fundamentally separate, distinct and disconnected. A sense of separation is the fruit of the dominant assumptions of western thought based on Cartesian logic and of course the persuasive sense of our daily experience which imagines it’s self as separated from everything else and sees that conclusion mirrored in the society and culture all about it. Einstein said that this view was an ‘optical delusion’ based on our inability to see the underlying unity of the universe but it is a compelling narrative and it takes work to challenge the appearance of things.

The consequence of a philosophy of separation in our lives is to be confronted by a hall of mirrors that reinforces the image of separation in whatever we see and do and encourages behaviors that exacerbate that experience leading to the dreadful sense of isolation and alienation which is so prevalent in western society today. Our hurried, searching lives cannot engender wisdom. Despite our remarkable attempts to create connection through technological systems we are, it seems, lonelier than we have ever been and we might ask why that is.

One explanation is to suppose that when attempts at connection are made from the philosophical and psychological point of view of the individual in a collective world, the hard or perhaps better put-more subtle work of real connection is omitted and overlooked. This is why technological connectivity based as it is on superficial notions of relationship, is ultimately trivial and frustrating so much of the time. Deep connection which is at the heart of personal formation and community requires among other things, time, courage and vulnerability. Upholding the principle of Unity as primary or causal in our experience is no easy thing because it demands that we accommodate and integrate the worst excesses and most unfamiliar aspects of ourselves and others in the process of becoming whole persons.

If unity is a causal principle of the universe then an effect of that unity is the act of caring. We care about what we feel connected to. Upholding the principle of care requires that we care for ourselves and others and that we practice the art of caretaking within community settings, projects, teams and organisations that are appropriate for the purpose, which is to say human,  in size and scale.

In his essay The Deserted Country, Wendell Berry refers to the principle of ‘eyes to acres’. Applied as it was to proper land use, in traditional farming practice there was an understanding that there was an eyes to acres ratio that was ‘right and necessary’ to save the land from destruction. By eyes to acres, Berry meant something he described as competent watchfulness. Connected to this idea was an awareness of the nature of the place and its history, an ability to be constantly present to the landscape and an awareness of what harm meant and what were signs of health in that ecosystem. The purpose of competent watchfulness was to ensure the continuing health of the land for the long term, something we now call sustainability but that was once simply built in to the logic of human-economic/ecologic systems. At heart is the notion of caring as Berry put it;

People who don’t care, or know enough to care, or care enough to know, don’t watch.

Competent watchfulness has much to do with the eye that sees and the care with which the eye sees- its deeper vision. Competence means knowing in the sense not only of techne (skills) but also poesis (making) and Berry makes an important connection between the ability to know and to love. Describing what he refers to as a practical and practicing live he writes;

How likely impossible it is to know authentically or well what one does not love and how certainly impossible it is to love what one does not know.

Any landscape, agricultural or organisational, requires careful watching and careful is the correct term here. Care is a matter of the heart and thus the art of caring is the business of the heart and the business of love and cannot rightfully be separated from other forms of business in any sustaining notion of the world. The concept of economics has it linguistic root in the principle of good housekeeping. It is deeply connected to the principle of ecology –the intelligence of the household-but in its modern rendering, divorced from its ecological responsibilities it has misinterpreted and underestimated our relationship with the earth solely on its own terms. Disconnected from the heart felt awareness that would mitigate the worst excesses of a human misunderstanding of what ‘resource’ actually means, this misreading of our responsibility and duty has come at a devastating price. When a forest becomes merely so many cubic feet of timber or cattle become so many kilos of meat we have crossed a line that has consequences that we see everywhere today.

In his reading of what it meant to educate a person rather than an individual Thomas Merton distinguished the true self from the false, describing the false self not a separate in any real sense but as an incomplete understanding of what it means to be fully human. The development of true self and wisdom which is the fruit of right understanding requires first of all and above all the renunciation of our obsession with the triumph of the individual and collective will to power. A logical consequence of this reading is that no constructive change in a person or group is possible if we continue to see the world and draw conclusions about what success means solely through the logic of the individual and collective eye.

Related to this  concern Martin Buber, made a simple but profound distinction between ways of knowing the world as I-it or I-Thou:

I-thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being, I-it can never be spoken with one’s whole being.

To see the world as I-thou is to transform and be transformed by it. This is the perspective at play when Berry speaks about competent watchfulness and it is what distinguishes and saves any community from the mono-cultural indignity and uniformity of the collective mind, it is what allows the human being to grow and mature into what he or she is meant to be, not homo economicus but homo sapien, a lucid, valid and contributing member of the eternal dance of life.

The true self, wrote Thomas Merton,

‘ Is the mature personal identity, the creative fruit of an authentic and lucid search, the ‘self’ that is found after other partial and exterior selves have been discarded as masks, this inner identity is not ‘found’ as an object but is the very self that finds’.

Put another way, unity is what we discover ourselves to be when other partial understandings fall away through the process of self-discovery. Unity by definition is not ‘elsewhere’ and cannot be separated from what we ourselves essentially are. The subtle work of personal formation, its consequences and responsibilities for what forms community as organisation or in any other way we care to imagine are deeply implicated in this understanding of what at heart it means to be fully human.

Organisation as community, based on the principle of care and connection renders a future whose outcomes are profoundly different from those of the collective. This shift in perspective knows to reckon the economic value not just of the money economy but of the wider ecological economy, which in human terms has to do with things such as knowledge, memory, familiarity, imagination, sympathy and neighbourliness.  These are perennial, timeless means by which communities have historically been able to balance the value and need for the provision of quantities of goods and materials with that of quality of life. They are also means by which we have traditionally imposed limits on our own behaviours. Freedom with limitations is at the heart of what actually empowers and sustains people and communities to act well; countering a model based solely on growth with one that seeks a balance that again is based in long term thinking.

Reckoning these things as part of the hidden economy is to define or redefine what we mean by value, the values we uphold and the value we place on the life we share with all that lives in this world. It gives a perspective that practically acknowledges the hidden unity that lies behind the appearance of things.

The purpose of organisations is to support human flourishing at human scale which is the most beautiful expression of the human being where conditions allow. It is a good that encompasses economic need but mitigates economic greed and thus encourages flourishing as a universal good. As we learn to care so we see differently. As Blake said, the eye altering, alerts all.

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Limited creatures in a limited world

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: Marge Piercy


When you do something useful things can happen. Usefulness is one of the great currents that sustains and builds communities and that upholds and creates what Marge Piercy called ‘real connections’. When we are no longer useful to one another, in the deeper sense of ‘being of service’ we retreat into smaller worlds and our lives shrink with that movement. Our experience is diminished.

It is May and the natural world has become a riot of colour and noise. After a mean winter, nature is suddenly profligate; life is rushing and pushing itself sunwards, a blossoming, budding, leafing, bursting extravagance, especially after the last few days of rain. What surplus plants and crops we have I have put out beside the lane with an honesty box and now cars and walkers stop by to browse or buy and something is beginning to happen, people stop for a chat, connections are being built.

There are many different kinds of exchange; Lewis Hyde differentiates between the notions of exchange as gift and commerce.  Gift unlike commerce brings us to an important currency in human interaction which commerce as a transactional process can and usually does, overlook which is reciprocity-the value of relationship and interrelationship in whatever exchange is made. The idea of ‘fair exchange’ takes on more meaning when the relationship between those involved becomes central and particular rather than an abstraction. The gift exchange, unlike commerce,  is complex and woven with stories and shared experience-it is a live encounter.

Relationship brings to mind the value of conversation. Conversation has its Latin root in the word conversationem meaning ‘to keep company with’. The old French word, conversation, literally means ‘a manner of conducting oneself in the world.’ In this light conversation becomes a guiding principle for how we conduct our affairs with others-not merely an act but a value or principle for being together and building fellowship, it is part of the process and practice of exchange that dances between the pleasure of the present and an investment in the future-the strengthening of bonds.

We are’, wrote Wendell Berry in an essay a few years ago, ‘limited creatures in a limited world’. Challenging our collective western view that ‘there’s always more,’ Berry described our ‘true religion’ as a kind of ‘autistic industrialism’ built on a false belief in limitless growth.  A consequence of the economic fantasy of limitlessness has been a catastrophic neglect of the real wealth of land, resources and genuine workmanship, along with other vital aspects of human interaction that give actual meaning to life including neighbourliness and caretaking which, he points out, ‘cannot be done by remote control, with the greatest power on the largest scale’.

 The recognition that human limitlessness is a fantasy matters because it tells us that, as a paradigm, its life expectancy is limited. Berry continues;

‘We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity’.

The inflection point here lies in a choice, or so it seems, between hope and despair a point I have often encountered. Actually, neither hope nor despair, insofar as they take us into a remote and distant future are useful. What is useful is the recognition that an understanding of what it means to be a limited human in a limited world can begin with any one of us right now. Recognition of the value and necessity for constraint is actually a strange seed of hope because it is tangible and real-it can be acted upon, it brings us to the place of actual experience which is not tomorrow, but today, here and now.

The gift of constraint, of reimagining what life at human scale might look like is the gift of choice, we can choose to act differently and thereby contribute directly to a new story that has effects both today and tomorrow and we can do it in numerous ways. Limitless growth by contrast smacks of choicelessness another word for which is addiction. The implications of limitlessness are in fact exhausting and the consequences are visible everywhere. The gift of the recognition of our limitations is to return us, as Wendell Berry put is, to our ‘real condition’ and to our ‘human heritage, ‘from which our self-definition as limitless animals has so long cut us off’. Limitation self-imposed has some relationship with humility; it loops us back to our clay selves, our earthy nature.

Limitation in this context has two basic aspects; natural and cultural. Earth is one definition of natural limitation as is place and ecosystem. To understand our ecosystem we can think about the actual meanings of words such as economic (literally from the Greek eco nomos meaning household management) and ecology (literally from the Greek eco-logos meaning understanding of the household). From the perspective of household with all that is implied in terms of shared responsibility, we can personally rethink our understanding of what economy means in our own lives and can act accordingly in the spirit of their deeper meaning. The connection between earth and household can also help us better understand the relationship between limitation and culture which is our collective response to self-restraint.

‘As humans’ writes Berry, ‘we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighbourliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty and love.’ We can ask ourselves quite practically how we are today in relationship with these human cultural qualities, what they mean to us, how we actually express, rather than talk about them in our lives then we can get to work on those things and know that that work we do actually makes a difference.

Yesterday two people from the village came by for a walk around the land. After they left I sat and thought for a while about how often in recent years I have reached for hope and felt despair- lost in grief or anger or listlessness, in the face of the fantasy of limitless growth that we have adopted as our ‘true religion’. I recognised as well that for too long I have been waiting for government policy or someone or something to shift things and that in the waiting, in that sense of impotence, I have talked too much and acted too little and in so doing I have lost some of my own vitality and overlooked my own behaviours and actions that have run counter to my expressed beliefs. I have been guilty of living for a remote future with little attention for the day in which I could act.

Hope, in fact, it seems to me, is not about some future point in time where along with all else, it becomes abstract and unreal, conjoined with despair.  Hope, if it is anywhere, is here and now, in the multitude of small actions that connect and foster life-that make time for the art of conversation and companionship, that honour and respect the earth.

The ‘idea’ of global crisis and words like ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainable’ can actually get in the way when everything becomes an abstraction, taking me away from the today in which I can actually do something real, something in particular, acting in a small way, in my own place, on what I would consider a human scale in the company of others. Whatever global crisis there is, whatever healing of divisions must be done, begins with a commitment from me to re-imagine my own relationship with the principles of ecology and economics, with ideas of limitation in my life and to act accordingly and faithfully.

It is May and the world is a riot of colour. Perhaps we might imagine, as I do, looking at the grass or the weeds among the vegetables that growth is indeed limitless but of course that’s not the case. The seasons will turn and growth will follow its pattern of eternal duration and generation setting seed and fruit for the continuance of life. For my part, I too can act in this setting in a way that feels both real and consequential.  Husbandry is the art of relationship with the natural world, a legitimate place for us to be in good company with our habitat, to encourage and constrain, mindful of the extent and range of the life we must care for, balancing a need for good food and income with the long term future of the place which is, as I have come to learn, not simply the land itself but the community in which it is nested. It is an art I am still learning.

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The Work of Peace

Far out in space there is a remarkable song of the earth. I was reminded of it a few days ago when I flew back into London from India.

At Heathrow arrivals there is a large billboard carrying a picture of the British astronaut Tim Peake welcoming travellers into the country. Looking more closely at the image recently I noticed that one of the badges sewn onto his overalls had the word peace written on it.

As a 12 year old boy I remember when in 1977 the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft left Earth to venture into deep space.

On board each spacecraft there is a golden phonograph record which carries messages from the peoples of the earth intended as a greeting to other life that might co-exist with us in the universe. Pictures, music and sounds were sent along with messages from a total of fifty-five countries. It is a narrative, a collective story told in fifty five languages. It is our earth song.

Having just spent the week in India I was struck to discover that the first word recorded on the disc is Namaste.

Namaste, more than a word or a greeting, is an organising principle of relationship. Traditionally the word is spoken with hands in prayer lifted to the heart. It means ‘the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you.’

It is a greeting that assumes and prioritises our spiritual nature and that recognises spirit rather than matter as primary in our experience. Philosophically it assumes deep connection between people rather than division. It  has ancient roots and tells a story about how we can be together. Perhaps there is no word on earth more singularly representative of what we understand instinctively to symbolise peace; within ourselves, between souls and in the world.

Namaste was followed by many other words and voices but the sentiments were strikingly similar. In every dialect and language the message we sent was the same. In Aramaic, Hebrew, Bengali, Burmese, Urdu, Welsh, Telugu, Sotho, Russian, Punjabi, Portuguese, in every voice-the same thing-and the same word again and again.


We welcome you; we greet you; peace be with you;

Of the twenty one categories of sound well over half were of the natural world and of core human activities. Sounds included the rain, wind and surf, the sounds of a dog, of volcanoes, earthquakes and thunder, of hyenas and elephants, a baby crying, a mother’s kiss, trees sighing, the sound of footsteps, heartbeat and laughter.

We sent sounds of connection, sounds of Life.

Of the music, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were mixed together with traditional songs from The Aborigine of Australia and the Navajo Indians. There is a men’s house song from New Guinea, there are pan pipes from Peru, bagpipes from Azerbaijan, pipes from the Solomon Islands and song from the gypsies of Bulgaria, a pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire. Song after song after song we have sung out into the universe and we have been doing so for millennia.

Listening to the recordings it seems hard to imagine that peace itself is anything other than fundamental to human life and human aspiration yet it seems we have become distanced from our own vision and our instinct for what the pioneering Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths called unity in diversity.

Unity in diversity is a principle connected to the Hindu word advaita or non-duality. It recognises both the value of difference in human relations and the fundamental truth of our interdependence or unity, a belief that underpinned Griffiths’ lifelong work to find synthesis between different religious perspectives, especially Christian and Hindu.

Instead of unity in diversity, we find that our societies have become increasingly wrought with separation and division. This division is felt ecologically in our separation from the earth, socially in our separation from one another and spiritually, in our separation from ourselves. Exploitation of Earth’s resources, extreme poverty and personal isolation are some of the consequences of the choices we have made in the name of progress and all are symptoms of division.

In contemplating our earth song, it is sad that contemporary life with all its pressure and urgency has so greatly undermined and threatened the livelihoods, beliefs, rituals and life systems of the people’s whose voices we sent out in greeting to the universe. As an example, one in ten young Australian Aborigine men now consider life today to be ‘meaningless’. We sent the aborigine songs but we have greatly harmed their people.

It is sad that the consumer choices we make every day threaten the plants, birds, fish, animals and other creatures we hear on the Voyager recording-to the point of extinction. We are currently losing species from the earth at the rate of 1000-10,000 times the background rate. We have sent the songs of the natural world but we continue to destroy earth’s habitats and plunder her resources for profit.

Today we live in a world where the gap between reality and what we know to be possible seems almost insurmountable.

To live creatively inside that gap, we will need to learn to balance our will to action and self-interest with a capacity for quietness and the ability to listen to others. Quietness is a capacity that we have lost touch with in contemporary life but it remains, I believe, inherent in us as does the capacity to listen deeply. We need to learn to listen again, precisely in the places where we have become most terribly divided. That is the practical work of the times we are in. Not easy of course, but there we are.

William Stafford invites us to consider the nature of quietness and our relationship to listening in a poem called ‘Being a Person.’

Be a person here,
Stand by the river, invoke the owls.

Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own call.

After that sound goes away, wait.
A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
Everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important.
How you listen for the next things to happen.
How you breathe.

In the space between what is and what could be how each of us stands is important. To stand up is in itself an act of singular courage. It starts with each of us and then goes from there. The principle of Namaste can help here. In acknowledging our primarily spiritual relationship to one another, in acknowledging what is holy and sacred between us, we can better ensure the commitment to meet our material needs. From such a place we will find the courage to ask ourselves what dreams we can share and how we might learn to dream the world together once more.

Along with our songs and music, we sent a recording of the sound of fire into space with Voyager. We have sung songs, told stories and listened to one another around fires for a very long time. There is an inherently numinous quality in the relationship between fire and story, the place where we encounter the spark of Imagination. Stories told in many languages can reconnect us in the places where we have become broken. They can do it because they are born in and carved out of life itself and the shared resource of our collective Imagination.

Stories are born out of the heart, out of the hardest and softest places of our lives that make our living real. They are valuable because they honour not only our personal lives but also our transpersonal experience-the sense of mystery common to all human experience. As such they have a special place in our understanding of self and other both materially and spiritually.

There are stories of the earth, of society and of the spirit in each of us that need to be told now and heard now.  In reclaiming our inheritance as creative storytellers, in reclaiming Imagination as a fundamental voice of the human spirit, we might discover or recover a collective myth strong enough to hold and guide us through tough times, one that will do honour to the message of peace we sent out with Voyager, one that honours all the people and voices of the earth that made up that song.

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Ignite or be gone Poetry, shamanism, love and a world of action

I have been sitting in my room this morning in candlelight. The first light has come into the sky now and the candle sends shadows flickering about the room suggesting shapes, forms, ideas, playing with time and space, moving my imagination between the worlds.

Candlelight is so evocative.

I have been sitting as I do each day in silence for half an hour. It has become a morning ritual for me- an important one. In recent days the end of this time has coincided with the sun’s rising- up over the hill that runs in a line north to south-the horizon of the view from my window. These last few days have been quite beautiful. Clear nights full of stars have led to bright frosty mornings, the sky an unimaginable array of blues and the sun itself, breaking over the hill, has jewelled the landscape, washed it each day with new light. The sun has been rising way over in the south west for months now. It is hard winter here still but I notice each morning that the sunrise comes just a few moments earlier. In a few months it will rise more or less entirely in front of me and finally, by midsummer, it will rise far away to my left almost out of view.

Sky wanderer

As it moves and changes with the days and seasons, how can we say that the sun is not alive-is not life itself-life begetting life.

‘Ignite’ wrote Mary Oliver, ‘or be gone.’

Yesterday I went out for a walk shortly after the sun had come up. It’s another more or less daily ritual when I’m at home and carries the same importance as the time I sit. There is a place that I like to stand on the top of the hill that gives its name to our village. In Somerset the old word for hill is barrow. I live in North Barrow. The village church sits on top of the hill and from the field I stand in the sun rises up behind a line of ash trees, silhouetting the church and casting the whole scene in the most glorious light. From this spot, the path I follow wanders thinly through fields over gates and stiles down to a small brook. On the descent the view opens right up. We live on the edge of the Somerset levels. In the distance, on a clear day such as yesterday was, you can see Glastonbury Tor rising like a beacon out of the landscape, a broad, distinctive hill, steep on its southern aspect and falling away more gently to the north. The simple remains of the church of St Michael are outlined at the summit and history presses in. It is ancient land. Stories layered upon stories.

The light yesterday was remarkable. If each day were immersed in these colours there would be fewer arguments about God. I stood awhile beside the stream and listened as it riffled and flowed over shingle and stones. The flow of water is such an eternal sound. The light caught the fence that runs alongside the stream illuminating strands of wool left by sheep that use it as a rubbing post. The trees- an old oak and the string of willows that hug the water, were outlined like charcoal drawings against the sky which was pristine. The whole scene shimmered.

I was standing at a spot where several weeks ago I had come across a song thrush. The small bird was dead though still warm. I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand for some minutes. There were no marks on it at all-its death was a mystery. As I held it I thought of my friend who, as it turned out, had died the previous day. I had been visiting her at home in the months before her death. Her dying was no secret between us and we talked about her experience openly and honestly. We sat with it; as much as was possible we sat in it together as her-self, her story, began to dissolve back into that other greater story. We both felt the subtle changes, the easing away of something, the gravity and grace of impermanence as her grip on life changed to something softer. Slowly over many months she had unpicked the threads that bound her to this world. Her books, her family, her passions, her beliefs, her activism, all of it, softened, loosened, entered the current we could both feel. There was grief and joy. We laughed more often than we should have perhaps. The universal and the particular moved and flashed together-it was like watching a fish move, working and settling in the current of a stream.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I placed the bird down beside the stream and covered its body though not its head, with several leaves that had fallen from the willows that lined the opposite bank. The next day I walked by again. The leaves were still there as I had left them, but the bird was gone.

Leaving the stream, the way home takes me up the lane, past a farm and down into the village, the circuit returning past the church and on down the hill to home. As I walked, I was struck quite suddenly by the transitoriness of this life. I felt it so strongly that I wept. It was not grief I felt, or joy exactly though it was both of these things and much more. It was, I’m sure, an affirmation, a blessing of sorts. I found myself turning the words of Prospero over in my thoughts as I made my way along the lane;

We are, he said,

such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.


I repeated the words several times and each time came the same gift of tears. It touched me in the way that breaks and forms in the same moment. It hurt in the way love can and does.


Words are powerful, especially as poetry. I share the opinion with Ted Hughes that poetry is shamanic. By nature, inclination and experience, I have come to believe this to be true.

‘Poetry leads us into the underworld, wrote Hughes, which is one of the main regenerative dramas of the human psyche, the fundamental human event’.

In a few simple lines good poetry will carry us down into the depths of ourselves. It will console, act as guide, mentor, teacher. It will also provoke us and encourage us to meet the immensity of the world its author intuits senses and seeks to describe. As such poetry is a bridge between the world of words as utility and the wordless silence which must remain always ineffable. There is an edge as Thomas Aquinas discovered beyond which words cannot go. In the burning presence of God, he put down his pen, put aside his final work and became silent.

We live out our days between time and the eternal and this is, I think, the landscape and territory of the poet in each of us. In these landscapes, the unfamiliar moves. There are footprints in the snow and in the mud, traces left on broken branches, there are thick forests and strange mists. This is the grimpen home of the poet who tracks and moves like a hunter in new fallen snow, seeking out image, symbol and metaphor, working with cadence and rhythm.

A poet will sit beside the bear cave of words all winter for a single sound, a smell, a vision.

We hear the drum sound and the feet of our souls-move.

Our spirits curl upwards like smoke. We respond.

There are, wrote Wendell Berry,

No unsacred places.

Only sacred places and desecrated places.

Here is a drum beat.

The world is sacred he says- not just in special places but everywhere, the world is first and foremost is holy, sacred ground. We know that don’t we-but we forget and in our forgetting, we lose ourselves, as Wordsworth said- in the light of common day. It is that sense of loss that so deadens the soul, separated as it is-as it seems to be, from its native goodness. I wonder if it’s a loss of a feeling for home or a longing for adventure, a keening to embark on the journey of return-I’m not sure, but if we lose that sense of being in it- if we lose the confidence that we are with our breath-involved-participants in the greatly mythic world around us, we suffer.

Our breath marks us as participant, as intimates with all that breathes and yet we can feel so alien. Even the rocks, breathe slowly. They sing too, so I hear.

Is there anything worse than to lose the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of the immanence of our un-being?

To be fierce with life is our birth right and what makes us truly human. It’s a strange image but it captures the courage that marks the best of our days, our living and our dying.  It is something to affirm our own lives in a world that is forever and perpetually affirming life, pouring it forth with wild abandon in a zero sum game that yet must include our own decay and death. Paul Tillich called this affirmation the courage of despair-the courage to be. That we can embrace being itself in the face of despair-this outlook is what makes things real.

Another drum beat.

How do we engage with our lives, not only our own lives but life in general-how do we participate-in the world?

Start close in.

There is our beginning. Make it what it is- what you know it is- which is personal. The poet knows;

..don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

What is that step I don’t want to take?

This is the shamanic journey to the underworld.

Close your eyes and see the other world.

Adjust. Get close in.

You can feel the fire; see how the light tricks your eyes in the darkness of the question, of the invitation. There are many faces. Time past and time future swirls about your head. Intoxicated. The drum beats swims, dreams, the ground falls away; you die.  Animals come, there is pain, burning, tearing, move across landscapes, over water, the stars seem near and far, move, dance.

We are danced.

Life is dancing us, we are dismembered, drunk, in love, sensual, sexual, cold, alone, our heart pounds, we sweat, we bleed, we soften, we weep, we rest, we sleep, we are awake, we are sore and hungry and tired and awake, awake, awake.

That is the first step. Descent and return is always the step we don’t want to take

Not the second or the third step.

Start close in.

What is the step I don’t  want to take? The one that goes over the edge.

We know what we sense and we discern truth from fiction when we get close in.  There is a trustworthy voice that is wholly our own if we will listen Up close the truth is always personal but it’s also universal.

The poet diviner.

There are currents moving beneath us and around us that are more intimately who we are than anything the common day world can tell us or give us.

The shaman’s first tool.

Nature. Always nature.

There are no unsacred places. The earth knows that and we too know but we forget.

Seamus Heaney is our guide.

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck…


Is that not our lives?  Are we not, at our most alive, our most engaged, our most committed-hunting the pluck?

What is that feeling? It is our own unique relationship with the great world which is also every relationship with the great world. If we meet the hidden world with confidence- we will be met.

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

We will be met

The drum beats- we can smell the hide and the resin in our darker minds

Between earth and the hidden streams of life we are mediators. The tools of our work are all about us, in front of us, so common you might disregard them. The kingdom of heaven is all about but men do not see it.

Our work?

Nothing fancy

To fashion ourselves.

To get close in to our own lives first and then lend our weight to the public effort

To fashion the one green hazel that is our own, to walk into the world with bare feet, to engage. To meet our part of the bargain with confidence. The earth, the living world wants to respond and it waits only for our agreement.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

The pluck comes.

I am at my desk again. The candle burns still but the daylight hides the shadow play. The days of bright sun and frosty mornings have passed and the morning has broken cold and grey. There is a northerly wind that whips around the edges of the house. When I stop writing and listen, I hear it at play. The branches of the tree just down the lane are swaying, dancing, and flocks of sparrows and starlings move across the sky in dark liquid flows. The crows, higher up, are scattered and windblown. It all seems like play. It is play.

My time of quiet in the morning is greatly important to me. I sit still. I have learned to simply be there loosening slowly around my need for things to happen. To be there is enough. Sitting at the feet of eternity. That’s how Teresa of Avila put it. Another poet.  Another shaman. There is silence. There is a drum beat which is also silence and that tells me it is good.

John Main, The Benedictine monk recommends that we don’t measure our progress when it comes to meditation;

‘…the great test is-are you growing in love? Are you growing in patience? Are you growing in understanding and compassion?

From the stillness it is time for work, time to make of the day what I can. Mary Oliver is right of course when she remarks that meditation is old and honourable;

Why should I

Not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

Looking into the shining world?


She is right to, to challenge her own thinking

Can one be passionate about the just, the

ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit

to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.


What cause do we labour for?  What is it that that connects us to what is just, ideal, holy, sublime?

Here we are in the territory of the poet guides. Poetry can drop us like a lead into other worlds. As we travel we realise that there are many different worlds, worlds of reflection, of wonder, of tremendous grief and sorrow, of terrible beauty, of love. We visit those worlds, inhabit them, and coming back with what boons we can we find if we are lucky that they are all one world and that we are the breath and eyes and ears and heart of that world which is really this world of ours in all its mystery. Then we are participant. Then we can labour in its cause.

We are, wrote TS Eliot, the music while the music lasts.

We are stillness and we are actors. I have watched my friend’s life shimmer from one to the other and I know consequently, in her absence, the reality of both. Her gift to me was to remind me of the imperative that we have to live our days as fully as we can and then, when it is time, to let go.

‘There is but one music in the world…’

wrote the mystic Evelyn Underhill,

‘……and to it you contribute perpetually, whether you will or no-your own little ditty of no tone. Mad with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music. The hills and the sea and the earth dance. The world of Man dances in laughter and tears’.

It is good and beyond good that it is so. It is in the final reckoning beyond words that it is so and that is the territory of the gods- of God. Yet there is a territory that spans our days and gives them the texture of good words that bridge the mundane with the eternal, the sacred, the holy- and that word that voice is the voice of the poet and the poet-shaman, which is each of our deepest inheritance. We are dreamers and actors all, we are dancers and artists and as such we must where we can- find our drum, find our voice and sing.

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