Sunday, June 29, 2014

With Steiner at Dornach


With apologies for the picture quality, I am no photographer as I was periodically reminded this weekend, but this is the grave of Rudolf Steiner at Dornach in Switzerland, where a new Goetheanum has risen to replace the old, destroyed by fire. It is in a beautiful location, saturated in a quieting silence, and it is surrounded by a number of original buildings also designed by Steiner that mirror and are mirrored in the surrounding architecture.

Steiner never ceases to intrigue me - that extraordinary admixture of improbable visionary, acute spiritual psychologist and progenitor of a number of radical movements in agriculture, the care of the learning disabled, education, finance and therapy. If by the fruits you will know them, Steiner is on the side of the angels.

It was a delight to see, and taste, however briefly, one of these fruits; and, to see his bodily resting place, in a contained, quiet garden, obviously lovingly tended and cared for.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Walter Kaufmann

Walter Kaufmann I first encountered reading his translation of Martin Buber's 'I and Thou' and as the author of an illuminating study of Nietzsche (of whom he was a distinguished translator). Subsequently I read many of his original works of philosophy that were pugnacious, challenging and highly enjoyable. Kaufmann wants us to make thinking decisions, most especially about religion, and wants to confront us with the complexity inherent in any mature decision,

His deepest critique is preserved for any form of dualistic thinking that constructs a world of black and white. Here is a world of the blessed - the right, the in group - and  here are the damned - the other, the out group. We can only envisage the world aright if we think in colour.

He also critiques any religious form or belief that leads to the suffering  of others, or the neglect of that suffering, either in this life or in a purported next. This might be the Hindu caste system or the Christian afterlife of eternal torment.

These drivers lead him to a high valuation of Prophetic Judaism with its care for all and its search for a levelling justice and of the Buddha's original vision of a patient, self-directed, search for liberation, rooted in testing out your own experiences.

Reading his 'Religion in Four Dimensions' is an exhilarating ride through why you should trustingly engage in a thoughtful consideration of your own religious beliefs. They can only be strengthened if you are able and willing to test your convictions rather than merely assume them and Kaufmann provides you ample score to do this.

In his own biography is testimony to the ability to follow your own convictions, wherever they lead, since in 1930s Germany he converted to Judaism, mercifully winning a scholarship to America in 1939 and thus able to escape the terror to come but nonetheless following his convictions into the very eye of the storm.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Breathing the Water

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

Denise Levertov

Levertov had an intriguing family inheritance - a father who was the descendent of a famous Hasidic rabbi and yet who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had become an Anglican priest (after a roundabout journey from Russia) with a mission to the Jews and an orphaned Welsh mother. They were parents who contrived to be, paradoxically, both demanding and distant, controlling and freeing. Levertov was effectively home schooled (as was her older sister) and whilst reading copiously and learning several languages, she never learnt to multiply!

Her vocation as a poet came early - a thread she followed - first a pulling from an unknown mystery that over time deepened and extended into an explicitly religious vocation. She was eventually to become a Catholic - though always a questing, sceptical one - and one convinced that no religious tradition can claim exclusivity over the truth. Truth is something that wells up within our experience, when faithfully attended to, and is always open to correction. She was always a poet first, a poet who happened to be a Christian rather than a Christian poet (or for that matter a 'woman' poet).

What is most moving in her life, as beautifully portrayed in Dana Greene's excellent 'Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life', is both that faithfulness to her vocation and her ability to let it transform her. She was always and ever a complex and conflicted person, a great and difficult friend, a wife and mother lovingly grained with imperfections and failures and yet she kept moving, sinking deeper into her own experience and fashioning from it poems that were never 'confessional' but that strove to offer ways of seeing that would be liberatory, of imagining new wholes. For her, imagination was our greatest gift for it enabled you to see with empathy, birthing compassion. She was touched by presence and she sang what she had been given and known, continually stepping through the limitations of her fragile person.

Last night after finishing Greene's book, I re-read Levertov's cycle of six poems on 'The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich 1342-1416' in her late collection: 'Breathing the Water'. In these six short works, she is able to re-imagine Julian's life, encapsulate the essence of her vision of God's grace, never striking a false note, making Julian wholly contemporary because wholly a truth bearer of an imaginative vision to be pondered, digested and remade as one's own.

"...God for a moment in our history
placed in that five-fingered
human nest
the macrocosmic egg, sublime paradox,
brown hazelnut of All that Is-
made, and belov'd, and preserved.
As still, waking each day within
our microcosm, we find it, and ourselves."

At heart what was most amazing for Levertov was:

"the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it."

In that Levertov could sustainingly sing it, from it, out of it, into it - a life of poetic witnessing.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Faces in the Smoke

As a child, Douchan Gersi, found himself transported from his native Czechoslovakia to the Congo (his parents had left for political reasons) and subject to experiences of the uncanny. These ranged across a servant visiting from the dead to thank Douchan's mother for arranging his funeral to witnessing reverse magic where the perpetrator of an evil spell has it returned to him with deadly effect. With this as background, Gersi became an explorer, writer and film-maker both of the outer world of 'peoples of tradition' (as he chooses to call primordial or indigenous people) and their inner belief structures - and where the two meet in exercising changes in the world that our current 'scientific paradigms' exclude as possible.

What I love about his book: 'Faces in the Smoke' is the matter of fact nature of his descriptions. This is what I have witnessed, here is my speculation about what it might mean yet make up your own mind. There is never a sense of somebody trying to sell you something or convince you of anything which, of course, in fact, makes it more compelling. Undoubtedly there is part of me that simply thinks here is a re-treaded Carlos Castaneda where you have no idea whether or not all (or most) has been imagined but, unlike Castaneda, nothing is wrapped up in a packaged metaphysics (or indeed anthropological imagination or theorising). The stories simply sit there giving rise to speculation without closure.

I especially loved the blind Touareg guide who skilfully navigates a Land Drover, driven by Gersi, across eight hundred miles of Sahara successfully without incident. With what and to what is he paying attention? How do you build a picture of a place where you have no 'picturing' facility, no sight? The potential of the human becomes extended, something other, than our common assumptions.

I, also, liked his account of a Brazilian healer who diagnosed through his hands (seemingly correctly) and treated by being a conduit for (visible) 'electricity' and turned out (in his day job) to be a physicist teaching at the local university, wholly respectable and respected!

As well as the simple pleasure of anthropological tourism that the book conveys in great measure, it helps break up that solid lump of 'scepticism' so called and help rests science back into mystery.

The happy assumption that there is so much that we do not know and it might be interesting to find out, to genuinely experiment rather than to foreclose with the assumption that it cannot be so because it is impossible (according to current assumptions) (or must be the consequence of clever manipulation). It places a pragmatic empiricism at the heart of things; and, I expect, we could all do with more of this as our default position.


 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Back in Moldova

I remember my first visit to Moldova not least because it was the day after the July 2005 bombings in London.  I had walked half way across the city to Paddington and taken the first train to leave for Oxford and found myself sitting opposite two people who had been directly affected by one or other of the blasts. One had taken refuge in vodka, the other in repeating his story over and over. I simply sat listening and wondering whether anything would be working the next day. It was and I found myself in Chisinau.

One of my most vivid memories of that visit was going to the National Art Museum on a Sunday afternoon and finding myself the only person there except for the staff, one of whom followed me round assiduously turning lights on and off as I passed. I can remember nothing of the art except the necessary Roerich was there. So prolific was he that I expect every significant, and possibly less significant, public gallery in the former Soviet Union had one!

Chisinau had and had not changed in the intervening nine years. The cars were more up to date, new buildings were present or in preparation, most especially the ubiquitous shopping malls; and, there was an air of greater prosperity. However, the roads had the same quota of potholes, the elderly buses competed with the same ramshackle mini-buses and as soon as you stepped out of the capital the picture had not changed, there were villages denuded of all but the elderly and the very young, stepped back into time.

Moldova is hot at the moment given the events in Ukraine. Mr Barrossa was in town and an EU integration agreement is in the offing. You hope that the forthcoming largesse may be spent wisely, a wager on which you do not hold your breath, though undoubtedly something of value will emerge.

However, as always, there are the seeds of alternative stories. There was the couple who had founded, with our assistance, a wonderful social enterprise focused on children and educational toys. Their enthusiasm was infectious and their modest success encouraging. There was too the fabulous entrepreneur who had spent eight years in Italy learning the leather trade and saving (whilst still sending money home to support his relatives) and who was now employing 40 people in his own business, building a local brand for leather goods.

For me, it was simply a pleasure to be back in the region.

The toy entrepreneurs had a shop in a Soviet apartment building. I walked into the stairwell and smelt an old familiar smell, a certain stale mustiness of undisturbed dust- the embrace of a region, a time- it was nostalgic and lovely.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

The intelligence that pervades

Buhner's 'Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal‎ Realm' asks that we see the world in a radically new (old) way. With our sensory gates widened, we will find ourselves immersed in the scenario that is the world, unfolding as a bit player in self-organising, intelligent systems, no more and no less important than any other organism, with work to do that is ours but never at the 'apex' of evolutionary development. 

Unlike the world of reductionist mater‎ialism, this is an intelligent, purposeful world intent on fulfilling expression and full of continuous innovation. Unlike the world of the religious fundamentalist, it is not a world made for man to which everything else is merely supporting background (to be stewarded or exploited according to taste).

It is a beautiful vision of the world that can be explored through renewed organs of feeling, as well as mind, and by learning to genuinely perceive it's unfolding and listen to its purposes, mostly expressed in the non-linear‎ language of sign and feeling.

On the way we learn a great deal about how intelligence is carried by expressed meanings and that such expression is carried in self organising systems, not only brains. Trees, for example are constantly modifying their behaviour within a living systems to sustain themselves as their embodying environment changes. Using, as they do, many of the same chemicals passed through nodal systems that we normally associate with brain chemistry - like for example serotonin. Trees communicate with their surroundings as purposefully as we do, in languages that are understood and respond to and is as concerned at creating a sustaining environment around itself as we are (and none of that description is seen by Buhner as an anthropomorphic projection)!

We are reminded too that our reason fashioned maps are never the territory and our ignorance always outstrips our presumptive ‎knowledge.

The world is returned to us through this journey as wonderfully strange and the invitation to each of us is to recover our ways of seeing and feeling that would give rise to a more humble, more compassionate knowing in which our expertise would be primary. We would not keep passing the buck for solutions to our challenges to top down expertise. We would be asking continuously as to what the world needs in this particular place and together with the other inhabitants of that place venturing a solution.

A refrain that runs through the book is Einstein's remark that we cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that caused them. Einstein's way of knowing is just one of the examples that Buhner cites as exemplary of what we need - childlike, imaginative, participatory that asks the world what it feels like to be it (in his case what does it feel like to be travelling as a beam of light) and listens to the answers, often as Goethe noted, delivered as analogies.

This kind of thinking is not prevalent in our schools and universities and Buhner notes that innovation tends to come from the outlier, the maverick and the barbarian. This is what he wants each of us to reclaim for ourselves - a revolution from below, achieved one person at a time ceding from the 'normal'.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Meditation and day dreaming.

My mother had me listen to a tape of Fr Laurence Freeman introducing meditation where he quotes Simone Weil saying that, "Daydreaming is the root of all evil". He is discussing the importance in meditation of remaining present to the unfolding saying of the mantra, of staying in the present.

However, the use of the phrase 'day dreaming' sparked a conversation in her meditation group, after all, some people get good and inspiring thoughts out of their day dreaming. If you watch a child 'day dreaming' are they not doing it with extraordinary engagement, attention and awareness (even as they are ignoring the lesson going on around them). Carried over into adulthood is this not what Einstein was doing when he was imagining travelling on a beam of light, a 'day dream' out of which the theory of relativity was born?

What Weil was buying into was the traditional devaluation of the imagination of her beloved Plato that was then carried over into the Christian mystical tradition (especially its male strand, the visionary was much more greatly valued by the female strand - Hildegard, St Catherine and Mother Julian all come to mind).

What Weil ought to have said perhaps was that distraction is the root of all evil - the failure to be wholly and lovingly present to whatever is present. In meditation, this may be the mantra or the breath etc but out of meditation, ably assisted by it one hopes, it may be whatever is drawing your awareness right now, including one's day dreams.

Distraction may be the enemy of virtue, imagination is not.

The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandf...