Tag: religion

Acts of Worship

“Human beings have a great need for rituals. We go in for uniforms and pageants. Our rituals tend to be militaristic or religious.”  –  Opher Goodwin

Opher and I have been talking about this for a while and we agree that it would be good to write some secular rituals that acknowledge the wonder of life: rituals that don’t require belief, religion or celebrate violence. He suggested we look back over past posts for writing that might fit this description. Here are a few things I found, starting with a moment of secular epiphany exclusively available to the blog community!

A few days ago I read three WordPress posts back-to-back whose mutual connections set my head spinning.

The first called for sustainability to become the new religion, dedicated to our offspring, where blasphemy would be conspicuous consumption and the failure to recycle.

The second described how university scientists have determined the best technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and try to reverse global warming. It turns out to be trees.

The third spoke of a spirit of inquiry which forgets previous knowledge, questions without agenda, listens with openness and curiosity … and suggested tree-climbing as an example of natural investigation teeming with insight and revelation.

These three ideas are fascinating, although I’d be inclined to put the phrase ‘new religion’ in inverted commas to show it was a metaphor. And my partner observed that a mass outbreak of tree-climbing might damage rapidly-depleting woodlands – sensibly suggesting artificial climbing-walls as an alternative – though she took my point that such leisure opportunities would abound with a concerted push to ‘re-wild’ the environment.

But what excited me most was the conjunction of ideas. Each of them appeared to correspond with one of Buddhism’s Higher Worlds – Compassion, Learning, Realisation. Now I’m no expert but I’ve heard that these three activities, practised side by side, can lead to enlightenment or nirvana. This, I understand, is a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth.

I’m not a magical thinker so would want to interpret this in psychological and, therefore, social terms. Not so much I, then, more I & I – the two that is one. My thoughts go back to the good friend who told me how his depression lifted once he realised he was more like other people than unlike them. Instead of focusing on differences, he concluded, it helps to seek common ground.

A paradox here is that variety is the spice of life. Living with paradox is a condition of life and nothing to be ashamed of, as the poet Walt Whitman memorably observed:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”

Poets celebrate and, yes, sing the praises of life in all its rich diversity. Appreciating the full breadth of earthly existence enriches our shared experience. Only connect and we come to see the beauty of our mutual ‘heaven on earth’.

So to speak. Which is where the search for new ways to communicate comes in. Someone – perhaps Salvation Army founder William Booth, perhaps not – once asked Why should the devil have all the best tunes? Well, I wonder, has the time has come to ask Why should organised religion have a monopoly on the language of celebration? Common ground, for me, is hallowed ground. An indivisible sense of life as sacred is our common birth-right and therefore sacrosanct from all attempts to brand any part of life as sacrilegious. Without contraries, said the poet William Blake, there is no progression.

To become enlightened, perhaps, is to understand how time can be both finite and forever. The poet John Keats, acutely aware of the likelihood that he would die at a young age, concluded that life was a process of soul-building. By ‘soul’, he didn’t mean something separate or separable from our flesh and bones – much as modern science makes no significant distinction between mind and body.

Time to Keats was precious. The friend I mentioned earlier would have appreciated this verse from Ode On Melancholy:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
       Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
       And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
       Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
               Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
       Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
               And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. This is the inscription on John Keats’ gravestone, dictated by him on his deathbed. He needn’t have worried. He is gone but his words live on forever. He is also remembered for his notion of ‘negative capability’, a quality he saw in Shakespeare, evident ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.

In other words, open the doors of perception. Perhaps we serve (and save) time best by indulging our natural love of serendipity. And things being various, let our legacy be to keep them that way …

… here endeth the lesson!

Phew! Thanks for bearing with me thus far – and here are those previously-promised past-post poems, including some acrostics. The final piece was composed together with other bloggers.

I doubt if any fall into the bags of hymn or psalm – too personal, probably – but they might encourage further attempts by me or anyone else who fancies a go. Please share if you know of others who might want to contribute.

Songs, poems, prose and links all welcome …

 

o Gaia hold us rapt within your arms
that life be one with love and one with all
let sense be always open to your charms
and spirit never falter at your call
o Gaia keep our step upon the way
that leads to wild places sacred shrines
where pilgrims catch a glimpse of yesterday
and dream of leaving children cryptic signs
o Gaia turn our thoughts to simple joys
and tune our hearts to nature’s steady beat
that we might hear the hush beneath our noise
and feel the dance begin to move our feet
for only celebration stirs the blood
enough to build an ark against this flood

 

S top the clock & turn back time to
O nce Upon when world was green &
I nnocent of crime we lived by
L etting well enough alone.

 

G o through, bold wanderer, no lock prevents your
A ccess to a world of open wonder. Do not
T ake your burden of passing years. Wear your
E xperience lightly. Look again through child eyes.

 

A child discovers wonders every day
And paints a golden picture of his world,
As stepping-stones to island haunts make way
For archipelagos and tales untold.
O where can he belong who seeks from birth
The answers to all questions – keys of mind
To treasure-chests of truths – but here on Earth
In free and equal friendship with his kind?
Though walls arise imagination soars
Beyond their shadow to a sunlit land
Where smiles greet strangers, sorrow opens doors
And dreams come true by popular demand.
The child I was once painted this in gold
And will not let me rest now I am old.

 

listen to the band play guitar
people come from very far
standing in a crowd you can’t hide
and your joy is multiplied

open up your eyes
this is no surprise
don’t look to the skies
just see it
in their eyes

an old man stumbles in the street
all he can hear is the passing feet
go up to him and hold his hand
feel his life running out like sand

open up your eyes
this is no surprise
don’t look to the skies
just see it
in his eyes

live your life just for yourself
line your nest and count your wealth
build your walls as high as the skies
you can’t buy a mirror that will tell you lies

open up your eyes
this is no surprise
don’t look to the skies
just see it
in your eyes

 

to expect nothing
is to keep a door open
to pleasant surprise

 

S ome things, you say,
A re blessed and some are
C ursed. But my
R eligion worships
E ach and every
D ifference with rapture.

 

H ere’s to the unsung lives
O f you, our countless forebears, unknown
M akers of our hearts
A nd minds.  May we
G race the world that once you walked,
E ver mindful of those who are still to come.

 

Each life bears upon
Or else ought to bear upon
The lives of others

Symbiosis of the web
A spider spins intricate

In shoots of fine silk
Like the pearl net of Indra
Interconnected                                                                 Christine Valentor

Connections breed fair patterns
Of symmetry and fractals

All bound together
Universal complexities
Nature can breed life                                                        dave ply

Sun, moon and seas sing in tune
A chorus to greet each dawn

Falling on the earth
Within white flesh, five ripe seeds
The fragrant orchard                                                         cathum

Arachne weaves worldwide webs
Eight wise fingers feel the pulse

High wire artist
Show how to nurture nature
Help us spin it out

 

Image result for cobweb with dew

 

Image: Pinterest

Non, je ne regrette rien (3/3)

Brave title, huh? And what a carefree fool was I to fill the first two parts of a three-part series with random musings in the vain hope that I would somehow be able to pull them all together in the third! My cousin’s beagle springs to mind, that sad mutt who follows threads of criss-crossing scent in the vain hope of catching something significant.

Do I regret starting this wild goose chase? Not allowed to, am I, with a title like the one above? So, nose to the ground and away we go!

My confessed failure as a systematic thinker means that I set great store by the intense moments of revelation that James Joyce called ‘epiphanies’ where all is seen, felt and understood in a flash. Art has a vital role in deepening our receptivity to such moments – my previous examples were the Charlton Heston character watching Woodstock and Joni Mitchell’s characteristic flashes of insight, so what better than to bring the two together?

You had to be there, right?

Well, no, Joni never made it to Woodstock because of the chaos on the roads. Frustrated by their absence from that epoch-defining gathering, she and Stephen Stills wrote this anthem while holed up in a New York hotel. It’s a song not of complacent hedonism but of aspiration and desire, the sources of its undeniable power. The future has yet to be found.

Just as great art is never an expression of unalloyed joy, so breakthrough science is never satisfied with untested hypotheses. We trust art when it confronts pain and we trust science when it battles falsehood. Fundamentalists of all stripes seek to limit the freedom and scope of art and science in favour of their own unquestioned nostrums.

Intolerant versions of all the major religions threaten to plunge the world into a new dark age of childish irrationality. Runaway nationalism threatens to raise the drawbridge behind globalism’s lucky winners, leaving the losers out in the cold. These scourges are the twin evils of Ignorance and Want that Charles Dickens unforgettably personified as two poor children 175 years ago in his deeply moral fable A Christmas Carol.

Image result for ignorance and want

And behind all this – some might say, a root cause of these problems – lies the pernicious philosophy that humankind is no more than the sum of its wants and preferences as expressed in a global market place. Inequality within nations espousing these mean-spirited notions is as bad as it was when Dickens worked himself to death in a supreme artistic effort to change hearts and minds. A new dark age looms where there is no such thing as community, where price is mistaken for value and where austerity bears down on the poor.  Here children are taught that the only status they can expect to be conferred on them in life is as consumers. Their parents, hardly less brainwashed, pass on a model of lifelong infantilism where the only gratification is consumption of poor-quality products.

Forgive my intemperance. I’ve just been reading a newspaper article which exposes the shortcomings of neoliberalism. It’s long but worth the effort, in my opinion.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

And tomorrow we look after our 3-year-old granddaughter. We probably won’t play with her shop-bought toys but instead devise scenarios using pebbles, sticks from the garden, string, coloured chalk and kitchen pans. This will be her idea. I just go along with it. She seems to know what she’s doing.

Oh, and clothes-pegs … she loves the Woodentops. She can impersonate that baby to a T!

What I would regret would be to leave her with a world in an unstoppable vortex of ignorance, want and greed … or, more precisely, to leave her in such crazy turbulence without saying or doing something about it.

So here’s a shot across the bows. Whatever happened to freedom, equality and solidarity? And what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Art Attack #2

Where was I?

Oh yes, just like you, here … and trying to make sense of it! My previous post set several hares running, so let’s see if we can catch up with some of them.

The Buddhist Higher Worlds (Learning, Realisation, Compassion) emphasise relationship, the core skill of a social species. The Lower Worlds (Hunger, Anger, Animality, Tranquillity) demonstrate disjunction, the breakdown of communication. What separates Higher and Lower is the difference between the collective and the individual. This gulf can be bridged, however, as Anger – to take one example – over injustice can lead to Compassion.

Snakes and Ladders, anyone?

Or swings and roundabouts. Did you know our power of speech is an evolutionary gain which increases the risk of choking? Thankfully we can use it to remind ourselves of the Heimlich Manoeuvre at the start of every dinner party …

I don’t really consider Buddhism a religion because it foregrounds the shared life in the here-and-now, unlike death cults which put individual salvation ahead of collective welfare. I Before We.

Perhaps the most famous example of We Before I is the stirring cri de coeur of the French Revolution – ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ Unlike the Higher Worlds, however, these three beauties aren’t easy bedfellows. My liberty to do whatever I want, for example, can make a mockery of your right to be my equal. We may need some relationship counselling. Or maybe some helpful quotations:

‘Equality is the soul of liberty. There is, in fact, no liberty without it.’ – Francis Wright

‘Love is not accidental. Love can only exist with freedom.’ – Leo Tolstoy

‘Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.’ – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

‘Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.’     -Eastern saying

Whoa, more hares disappearing over the horizon! That last quotation suggests we need more than just a little give-and-take. What’s required, it seems, is a radical change of consciousness. And who better to guide us than, gulp, a politician?!

‘The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? Like Keep Calm And Carry On, it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide …

Besides, what’s so great about Tranquillity? It’s one of those pesky Lower Worlds, isn’t it, full of zombies and yes-men? Far better to think for yourself, expand your capabilities and refuse to hate the unfortunate patsies and scapegoats they sling your way to hide their own incompetence and lies.

They? If I hate anyone, it’s those who get elected on promises of strong government and then dismantle safeguards against unfairness to favour their own kind. You know. Them.

But the bad old days of freemasonry and closed shops are long-gone, right? Surely no secret deal is safe in these days of WikiLeaks and world-wide web-sharing? We are entering, are we not, a golden era of openness and honesty in which we are all fellow-citizens of a world without borders or barriers or ignorant bigotry?

Hmm, could be … but in the meantime, dear Netpal, you’ll find my FacePaint Page under a sassy pseudonym with a pirated profile picture and a plethora of posts carefully curated to present a thoroughly positive image: witty, sophisticated, discriminating, intelligent, thrusting, upbeat … all friends selected, all nerds unfriended … a perfect shop-window for a world that’s open for business 24/7!!! 🙂

😦 Now I am frightened. Just looked at my FaceAche Page. My satire is uncomfortably close to the truth. Sometimes the internet resembles the aftermath of an explosion, numberless fragments flying around, a crazy chaos without context. Conventional media, caught up in the blast, dance to the same broken tunes. And you can find whatever you want unless you want to make any real difference to anything.

Too gloomy? I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

If you’d asked the Ancients to imagine a magical way of talking to everyone in the world, what might they say were its possibilities? A marvellous theatre or a great debating chamber? A gallery of wonders, drawn from art and nature? Above all, perhaps, they might have envisaged a repository of truth and goodness and beautiful flashes of insight – a pathway to enlightenment.

When I was a kid, giving little puppet shows to anyone who’d watch and listen, such a vision seemed to beckon. The other day I told my granddaughter, 2 years old, about toys I’d lost as a child – the little manikin out of a favourite forklift truck, a plastic crocodile floating into the overflow drain of a sink. She asked me to retell these two stories over and over. Then she devised a drama in which they were returned to me.

You know what? It worked. There they were.

When nature is broken, I wonder, can art mend it? It’s a question I’ll return to in my final post in this sequence … no guarantee of reader satisfaction, of course, but I can promise this picture clue will be part of the answer

 

Image result for skull

 

Image: Dr. Odd

Art Attack # 1

 

 

Inspired by the free-flowing piece on writing that I linked in my previous post, here are some foot-loose and fancy-free reflections prompted by the above graphic.

I’m a sucker for clever graphics. This one pretty well sums up my philosophy of life. If you define science as the exploration of nature, you have the classic art-nature opposition which dissolves because art seeks to celebrate and even emulate nature by mimicking it. As we learn ever more about our world, art evolves to reflect scientific understanding. And like natural evolution, a more willed process than used to be thought, art involves performance-feedback-revision.

I’m also a sucker for equations. An equation to represent the graphic might be:

Knowledge + Creativity = Reverence

By coincidence, I’ve just read this in ‘V’ by Howard Jacobson:

There was rapture and there was responsibility. Each imposed an obligation of seriousness but together they made the serious sacred.

Dionysus and Apollo together make up the ancient Greek ideal – two sides of the same coin, no one without the other. The poet William Blake understood that ‘without Contraries is no progression’. But what strikes me about the equation is how it echoes the Buddhist concept of Higher Worlds: Learning, Realisation and Compassion.

A swift digression – I’m no student of religion and happy to be put right but my understanding is that there are 10 Worlds:

Hell, Hunger, Anger, Animality, Tranquillity, Heaven, Learning, Realisation, Compassion, Nirvana.

Hunger is absolute want. Anger is the root of conflict and war. Animality is obsession with status, pecking-order, dog-eats-dog. Tranquillity, sometimes known as Humanity, is inertia – passive acceptance of the status quo. Suffering two or more of these Worlds becomes a Hell on earth. Heaven is a temporary respite from the other Lower Worlds.

Now the good news. As we all know, there are positives in adversity which enable us to climb out. Learning is our evolutionary lifeline. Realisation I take to mean mastery, the attainment of skills which help us transcend ego. Compassion is simply fellow-feeling. Blend these Higher Worlds to attain Nirvana – escape from the cycle of Birth and Death, with all its inevitable suffering.

Now – cards on the table – I don’t happen to believe in Reincarnation, any more than I believe in Transubstantiation. Infected by the scientific method, I require hard evidence of life after death – evidence which is so far not forthcoming. But the 10 Worlds work for me as a theory of human life, with the potential to alleviate my natural and universal fear of death. And if I can use the certainty of my own demise as a means of enhancing my appreciation of life, so much the better – one in the eye for the Grim Reaper, you might say …

Enough for now. More to come next post, though, as I’ve only just scratched the surface of what I want to say. It gets more cheerful, promise!

Here’s a taste of what’s to come …

 

Image result for the grim reaper

 

Image: Twitter

Plato’s Cave

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

Image result for jimi hendrix

Jimi Hendrix manages to say more in these four lines, I reckon, than Plato manages in four hundred. Where Jimi talks of expanding consciousness from the delusion of self-absorption to a direct and sensual delight in the real world, Plato suggests the tangible world around us is an illusion we can only escape by retreating into abstraction. At least, that’s how I read his cumbersome and deeply depressing analogy of human existence as a kind of underground imprisonment jumping at shadows.

Click on https://aquileana.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/%e2%96%baphilosophy-platos-cave-and-fifteen-million-merits-black-mirror/ for an excellent comparison of Plato’s ideas with the TV film ‘Fifteen Million Merits (Black Mirror)’. And the internet abounds with short films on Plato’s Cave, such as https://youtu.be/1RWOpQXTltA and https://youtu.be/LTWwY8Ok5I0

On the face of it, Buddhism agrees in principle with Plato’s assessment of reality. The Buddhists believe that life is ‘dukkha’ or ‘suffering’. This suffering – according to the Buddha – comes about through human desire to hold on to the physical realm, an attachment to things. Buddhists might agree with Plato that physical reality is in a constant state of change. But I doubt whether they’d exchange the beauty of the world for his spooky and rather bloodless realm of pure Ideas and Forms.

The Buddhist higher worlds are much more down-to-earth: they comprise learning, compassion and realisation – this last I take to mean a more intense engagement with the world amounting to an ability to live fully in the moment. Enlightenment, or Nirvana, may perhaps be regarded as the moment of psychological escape from the cycle of birth and death. Life and death are one.

Plato’s cave denigrates the material world. According to Mel Thompson, Plato “fails to illustrate that attractiveness of the physical world; the scene inside the gloomy cave hardly represents the delights of the senses”.  Plato’s analogy of the cave is nothing like the world we live in, so we can’t relate to it or understand it the way Plato wanted us to. He doesn’t help us understand the world we live in. He implies the senses are useless, but we have survived for millions of years because of them. All artistic endeavour, he says, is pointless because we are merely making copies of things that are already copies.

Image result for plato

Plato’s misanthropy doesn’t stop there. All finer feelings – such as unconditional love, perfect friendship and selfless altruism – are imperfect copies of purely notional concepts. This is clearly nonsense. And if we are to believe there is a perfect Form of everything then there must be perfect Forms of nasty stuff too. Yet the realm of the Forms is meant to be perfect, unchanging, and eternal. This world, as Stephen Law says, “requires the existence of deeply unpleasant things such as mud, faeces, and mucus. The ‘Platonic heaven of the Forms’ does not sound so heavenly … “

Problems with Plato’s Cave multiply because he fails to make a distinction between the visible world and the World of Forms, as the analogy contains physical objects. The Sun is a physical object and the fire in the cave merely a smaller version of the Sun. This does not provide a convincing explanation of the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.

Plato divides our one world into two but he offers no proof of two worlds. It is a leap of faith. Aristotle argued that a Form does not have separate existence over and above a particular instance of it. It is impossible to prove Plato’s theory.

Plato would no doubt turn this round, as he turns everything else round, by saying that authentic knowing is not possible while we’re constrained by these bodies. And yet he says that he knows these things. With Plato we are entering the realm of magical thinking and starting to leave the ground. But we have to question  whether a priori knowledge really is superior to empirical knowledge.

Moral relativists deny that moral fact exists. Nietzsche suggests we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Hume and Ayer regard moral statements as demonstrations of emotion. Sartre says that we are what we do, which locates our identity in the social environment. According to these thinkers, nothing descends from on high. It’s down to us.

Plato holds the deeply patronising view that only an elite can work out reality but we know how easily elites can lose touch with everyday life. Knowledge of practical goodness is widespread – those ignorant of goodness can be educated or uneducated. Plato disparages democracy and draws an over-simplified contrast between the ordinary person and the philosopher.

In a way I can understand some degree of special pleading because his mentor Socrates died for expressing his views. Also, while Plato’s analogy is at best dodgy and at worst damaging, it does shed unintentional light on political questions like social conditioning. This shouldn’t be overstressed as Plato’s reference to it is only a metaphor within a metaphor – hating art, he can’t be expected to be much good at it, can he? – but for what it’s worth, here it is:

Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

Is it the nature of life that plays tricks on us or is it the nature of human societies? Plato predictably doesn’t make this clear. Susan Sontag found interesting connections between Plato’s dancing shadows and the arbitrary contextless way the media portrays reality, but perhaps that’s an idea for another post …

 

Images: pinterest.com & http://www.artofmanliness.com/2010/02/04/man-knowledge-the-greek-philosophers/

Part of the Problem?

It behoves us oldsters once in a while to put aside the comforting toys of our second childhood and consider the state of the world we leave our children. Against a background of rising inequality and failing ecology that surpasses the foggy 19th century, we witness religious upheaval that seems to emerge from murky mediaeval mists. Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to banish the Dark Ages for good? And who in the egalitarian and optimistic 1960s would have predicted such a lurch into irrationalism and tribal conflict?

E.P. Thompson in his brilliant book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) suggested that history showed a desperate oscillation between periods of political activism and religious fervour: whenever one was seen to fail, the other would be tried once more. And as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm … if my own experience is anything to go by.

I was a churchgoer as a child and would sit in my pew searching for spiritual illumination through stained-glass windows with the best of them. Left to my own devices I would later climb tall trees to the sound of church bells, as if to gain a higher perspective. The voice that came to me in the wind through the leaves spoke a different truth than the preacher below. Two voices, then, and both of them in my head still …

 

“I am an actor mouthing another’s words, my days spent in drab rehearsal for the cavalcade that shimmers behind death’s parting curtain. I want to know nothing beyond scripture, for it is blasphemy to search out divine purposes. I seek only to assuage an angry deity, despising and even persecuting those who fail to observe the little rituals and shibboleths that may keep the wrath of heaven at bay. I think of Us and Them. I am generous to those whose ways I approve because I yearn for eternal reward. No matter what else I may say, my one concern is personal salvation.”

 

“I search for the voice that nature and experience will give me, each day until my last a new voyage of discovery. I want to know everything because I seek to become as whole as the world. My happiness and security are founded in the union of equals. I think only of Us. I study the ways of every creature and strive to be generous to all. I do not fear death because it brings value to life, which I hold sacrosanct.”

 

A third voice might point out that the other two are polar opposites, exaggerated and even caricatured. Most of us are strung out on a ragged continuum between those positions, with many believers more charitable and many non-believers more selfish. My only question in these turbulent times would be,  which perspective is most conducive to peace?

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