Saturday, February 28, 2015

Restoring the Soul of the World

David Fideler, the author of 'Restoring the Soul of the World', will not recall that he once joined in a collective campaign with a waitress in Michigan to persuade her that, though I was without ID, I was of an age to drink (in truth, I was significantly over the age limit and rather touched that people imagined that I was not). It worked and is testimony to his persuasive power.

Such power is evident in his book. He takes us on a journey, beginning with the builders of Newgrange and Stonehenge through the Western intellectual tradition to the new champions of biomimicry and eco-design to show that we inhabit an universe that was if not designed for us (by an external creator) is most decidedly designed with us in mind. By which I mean that the universe is an unfolding reality whose complexity grows in consciousness and that in some important sense creates a perfect location for such as us (and similarly self-consciously aware beings) to emerge. The constants that determine the universe's possibility are, after all, just right.

Fideler tracks this notion of the cosmos as an intelligent whole, that is purposeful, evolving and where 'matter' and 'energy' are two sides of the same coin and what matters most of all is the 'pattern that connects', the patterning that makes for, ever more complex variation and difference, which, Fideler reminds us, was Gregory Bateson's definition of 'mind'. We do not just happen to be, accidental happenings within an indifferent universe, we are emergent and embedded 'properties' of the whole.

It is a wonderful, beautifully lucid tour not least for its sympathetic treatment of the Enlightenment. Often in books of this kind, we start with a lamentation over the baleful influence of Descartes and Newton, before progressing backwards and forwards to more 'conducive' views, but Fideler sees the birth of science (and the accompanying Enlightenment) as necessary steps in the story of understanding who we are and how we arrived here.

Indeed there is a beautiful moment when he takes the image of the astronaut who at one level is as alienated from the earth as possible, out in space, wholly sustained by human technology, isolated in his or her suit yet whose pictures of the 'one earth' - our viable (and tested) home - are revolutionary and at work in the collective psyche of humankind inviting us to a renewed and restored vision of what it might mean to be at home here, and at one.

It is as if we needed this 'stepping back' in order to genuinely see how we can move forward.

It ends too on a hopeful note - not only on a renewing sense of vision - but in the field of eco-design, where radically paying attention to how nature has achieved this extraordinary journey from Big Bang to self-regulating planets sustaining life, shows how we can begin to design with the mind of nature, where nature is model, measure and mentor. He discuss a number of striking examples when what has emerged has been practical, sustainable and indeed renewing - such as natural systems of waste disposal that have transformed highly toxic materials into usable products and fresh water or houses that heat themselves using 'only' the tools of plants and everyday sunlight.

He happily demonstrates that you can have a 'meaningful' relationship within our natural home and be challenged not to 'go back' but go forward in the most exciting intellectual project of all - designing a common future in the mind of a whole planet.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Care taking again

It is always compelling when you read a book for a second (or X...) time to see what resonates now, different from the previous occasion both because what you attend to will have changed and the person who is attending will have changed likewise. As Heraclitus would say, you never step into the same book twice...

Re-reading Gary Lachman's 'The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World' (that I discussed here, I noticed this time, more explicitly, the discussion of consciousness.

The book's central thesis is the world we inhabit is an unfolding development of the consciousness that brings it into being. It is a thesis that is seen from the perspective of the Western tradition both esoteric, poetic and of the marginalised philosophic and scientific. It is a view that would be 'standard' within the traditions of Buddhism, Taoism and Vedanta, consciousness as the 'stuff' out of which all is fabricated, the only reality we know, except for a contemporary 'twist' - that the consciousness that is unfolding is subject to evolution. Potentially our way of being in the unfolding cosmos is being deepened, transformed. Our sense of alienation from the world is being progressively healed in proportion to that advance in qualitative vision. It is not a question of stepping out of an 'illusory' universe, maya, into a stable eternal reality but of stepping deeper into a path of co-creating the fullness of a shared, transformed cosmos (as Sri Aurobindo would have had it). The difference is in seeing the material world not as an 'illusion' but as a material order that invites being uplifted into a new relationship with its informing spirit.

Advancing in that qualitative vision is to recognise (with William Blake) that we 'become what we behold' that we are invited to continual acts of imaginative completion (to use the phrase of Colin Wilson). How do we release the 'divine sparks', enfolded in everything, every encounter, such that the world revels, in its disclosure, as a place of loving being?

We might start by freeing ourselves from the dominant narrative that matter is prior (whatever that is as it floats on a sea of dark energy or hovers between waves and particles) and that we, our conscious, lived, qualitative experience is merely an arbitrary epiphenomena. On the simple rule of starting from where we are, we might notice that we what we fundamentally are is first and foremost our experience, qualitative, irreducible, mysterious - and allow to this the reality and confidence it desires. In that freedom is our first release from which other liberties will flow.

The liberty to notice that the world we inhabit is shaped by the consciousness and attention we bring to it and widening and deepening that attention transforms the world and its possibilities.

More than this is encompassed by many of the key esoteric and mystical teachings but perhaps the best place to start is in flexing the muscles of one's attentive seeing and so be drawn anew into a glimmering transfiguration of being. For Ouspensky, as Lachman notes, it was seeing anew the real potentialities of an ash tray (!) for the poet, Kathleen Raine, it was truly seeing a hyacinth.

The cosmos can caress us with its true beauties from many directions if we cleanse the doors of perception and step through them to truly create a new seeing.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Abominable Snowman

One of the joys of BBC I Player is the 'film category' where all kinds of material pops forth that you would not necessarily go in search of. One form of this is the occasional 'Hammer' film from that fertile factory of the fantastic. Today it was 'The Abominable Snowman' with the wonderful Peter Cushing.

One of the great features of popular culture is that it can explore ideas that if baldly stated in the 'mainstream' factory of idea production (what is rooted in what is currently perceived to be the case) would probably not get a look in and yet enclosed in the comforting word 'fantasy' can be happily explored.

In this case, Cushing is a botanist on an expedition to the Himalayas staying at a Buddhist monastery. So far, so innocent, but he harbours a belief in the existence of the 'Abominable snowman' or yeti and aims to link up with an American expedition that is seeking it. This aim neither accords with the monks nor with Cushing's wife (though for different reasons).

The American expedition appears and Cushing, allaying his wife's fears and dissembling with the monks, sets off with them into immediate conflict. Cushing is a scientist who wants to confirm the yeti's existence, the expedition wants to capture one, ostensibly to further human curiosity but as a reflection of a fundamentally commercial mindset.

Meanwhile, the dissembling is moot because the lamas have the power of telepathy and know that what will unfold will do so according to the quality of the consciousness of the participants.

In the end, the yeti (who do exist) thwart both aspirations - of the commercial expedition by (restrained) violence through exacerbating the desires of their pursuers to the point where they fold under their own harmfulness (of derangement, fear or greed) and of the scientist by persuading him of their higher moral purpose. A persuasion that is only possible because of the inherent receptivity of the scientist and the quality of his conscience.

In this latter case, they, a third branch of evolution, have taken shelter in the Himalayas curious of what humanity will make of itself (and the verdict is out) such that if they fail, they may be able to step in and take the objectives of the creation forward, humanity having failed (cue references to the prospect of nuclear annihilation and ecological degradation - the film was made in the 1957). The yeti are portrayed as superior beings (guarded in their existence by the monks) and we are meant to consider, as the film unfolds, both their implicit criticism of our daily existence and the hope that, in spite of what we do or fail to do, an evolutionary impulse towards a greater reality will continue. The responsibility of any and every conscious being is caring the world into a greater fullness of being, fail that responsibility and life will find a new path forward.

All of this wrapped in the coating of a 'standard' melodrama, replete with anguished wives, necessarily devious lamas, avalanches and suspenseful glimpses of the yeti (who only fully appear when they transfer their thoughts and secure their secrecy with Cushing's scientist). Yet it is only a film factory produced 'horror' film...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Piero di Cosimo in Washington

Prometheus making the first man

Yesterday with meetings complete, I went to the National Gallery in Washington
DC to see their exhibition on Piero di Cosimo - 45 works in all - works that embraced the decorative, the mythological and the religious.

When you go to see a major exhibition of a painter's work, there is always an assessment (or reassessment) going on, almost involuntarily. I remember going to the big Gauguin show in London. He was an artist I greatly appreciated only to realise that there was a specific period in his art, associated with his time in Brittany, when there was a perfect balance of aspiration and realisation - a known world heightened, symbolised that is beautiful - and that nothing afterwards, including the whole of Tahiti, that comes anywhere close to it. Indeed in the Tahiti period, there is a straining after revealing the knowledge of people and places that it is obvious he does not wholly comprehend, deteriorating into the merely exotic, so it becomes continually obscured by imposed projections.

Piero di Cosimo I knew truly only from this beautiful painting in the National Gallery in London (that had not traveled to Washington) where a Satyr mourns a nymph. I recall it vividly because I remember first seeing it with the distinguished Irish painter, Patrick Pye, and he showed me how it works as a painting. How, for example, the arch of the nymph's hip is positioned in relation to the two dogs so they balance and amplify one another and a grounding sense of collective sympathy within the painting is established.

I, also, knew him as a character in George Eliot's novel of the Renaissance, 'Romola', and his ambiguous relationship with his craft, occasioned by his encounter with the reforming preacher, Savaranola, that returned him to painting religious themes.

However, what I most loved, were their brightness, life and a sense of harmonious balance. We are abroad in an enfolding cosmos of order and harmony that, however damaged by a disrupting sin, still glimmers through, giving to us our proper place as sons and daughters of God in a connected, abiding whole. Many of the elements of his sophisticated symbolism are either lost to us or lost in the see-sawing of scholarly controversy but what can be seen is a highly accomplished painter of the Renaissance whose art sings and touches the depths (with or without conscious understanding of message).

The other painting I admired (apart from the di Cosimos) was that of his German, younger contemporary, Albrect Durer.

This is Durer's 'Lot and his daughters' and it beautifully captures their unconsciousness - on they march, steadfast in not looking back and yet failing to notice their mother, on the road in the distance, advancing on her demise!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

One River

I almost had another life (one of several) when together with Charles Elliott, then Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, we pitched a programme scenario to the BBC that revolved around a series on what we (Western civilisation) might learn from indigenous peoples. It was, at the very last moment, spiked by Alan Yentob, then Controller of BBC 2, because he had not liked Charles' previous series on the 'global Church'. Life might have been very different.

However, the interest remained - the fascination for courteous anthropological literature that rests in careful listening to the lives of others and asks what we might see and learn from the currents of different lives (and why, simply, such diversity ought to be welcomed and celebrated).

One such author is the ethnobotanist and explorer, Wade Davis, who I first encountered unravelling the mysteries of the 'zombie' in Haiti and showing how a botanic (and chemical) mystery was woven within the fabric of social expectation (and conditioning) to yield a real notion of how a person might be persuaded that they had died and now lived, a suspended and animated life, under a new dispensation.

Davis' teacher was Richard Schultes, legendary botanist, not least because as an expert on hallucinogenics helped (unintentionally) the era of tuning in and dropping out promoted by his Harvard colleague, Timothy Leary.

'One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest' is both Davis' biographical account of Schultes' career and accomplishment and an account of his own travels (often with Timothy Plowman, one of Schultes' most brilliant students). Schultes was mainly in the Amazon in the 30s through the 50s, Plowman and Davis' travels are in the 70s and 80s.

It is a wonderful and chastening book. Wonderful because you are ushered in to an extraordinary world - natural and human. Chastening because you are reminded of the depths to which we, humans, can descend. Offered an opportunity to tour the famous opera house at Manaus, built at the height of the late nineteenth century rubber boom in Brazil, Schultes declines saying it has been built from the blood of Indians; and, it simply was, murderously out of the momentum of raw greed. Nor do we intelligently distinguish between 'coca' and 'cocaine' - the former is a radically important dietary supplement for Andean people (and much else besides) and 'cocaine' a refined product, ripped out of any context, with complex social consequence but 'policy makers', ignorant of people's lives, grind on an eradication process regardless, with all kinds of saddening consequence.

But the deepest fascination of the book is a running, asked but as yet unanswered question, how did its native inhabitants learn so comprehensively, tailored to need, the secrets of its plant life for medicinal, hunting, sacred purposes? The usual answer is 'trail and error'.

The only problem with this is that it is wholly unconvincing. First because there is no evidence for it - the indigenous people only take to it in response to the usually calamitous interaction with colonising people (bringing unknown diseases) and with limited success. Second because the Amazon is the most biodiverse region in the world, with an extraordinary proliferation of plants where many of the indigenous treatments, poisons, intoxicants require not only extensive, complex preparation but unlikely combinations of material (and where one false step may have fatal consequences, so why proceed)?

The indigenous people explain how they arrived at their knowledge through a combination of myth, dream and 'listening to what a plant tells them' (a kind of listening that clearly is not what a traditional ethnobotanist might mean, though I expect Goethe might have understood). It is to Davis credit that he does leave this question open, dangling tantalisingly.

Meanwhile, through the eyes of these remarkable, and highly sympathetic, individuals, you are lead into a world that, to this day, remains full of undiscovered wonders and to allow it to play into your sympathy and love, and never with a hint of a misplaced romanticism. It is one that is increasingly necessary as our ways of life continue to threaten its very ongoing existence. Beauty may not save us directly (to distort Dostoyevsky) but a deeper acquaintance with, and love for, the beauty of the world may help save it (and with it, its most unruly, self-willed offspring, namely us).

Who knows, one day too, we may rediscover the wisdom of listening to the plants?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Port William

When I was a child, I enjoyed imaginary cartography and would invent countries, designing maps with political, topographic, economic and social themes.

With the temperament of an Aries, I never doggedly plugged away at one invented place (as C.S. Lewis did) nor did my imagined landscapes ever become accompanied with story, as I was a typical factual male, but I remember, even yet, the joy of systematic invention, creating a cohering whole.

I was reminded by this on discovering (and correcting an oversight) that the American author, Wendell Berry, (in 2013) published a further twenty stories of the Port William membership (that I immediately ordered).

I first encountered Berry at the first Temenos conference at Dartington Hall, encountered literally, for having bought a book of his essays the day before, I found him, and his wife, Tanya, across from me at the breakfast table! I wish I had known what to say then, as it haunts me as a lost opportunity, but merely managed courteous pleasantries. I do remember feeling he was like a tree - gracious, tall and rooted.

I did not know then what I now know that with that book of essays, I was being ushered into a mental landscape that was both utterly rooted in a place and totally universal in scope.

The place was Kentucky, actual as Berry is a farmer, imagined, as Berry is one of the most gifted living writers, who has made of his place a lodestone of contemporary ills, of communal responses and potential, graced futures.

His is prolific - essays, novels, short stories, poems (and plants and animals on the farm) - but it is his fiction that I realise I most love as it explores a particular place - Port William - its society and geography - in a celebration of the possibilities of community and in a lament for what the disruptions of an ill considered modernity have made of it.

The prospect of a further twenty stories is an unalloyed joy.

What I consider most powerful in Berry is his ability to make of the fabric of normal life a heightened witness to its potential for meaning. This is where we find it, in the ordinary unfolding of a life lived well or badly.

He taught me how to recognise that one's parents never step out of the fear of parenthood, and the care of it. He has showed me the contours of grief borne and lived and honoured. He has demonstrated for the grace of dying as oneself, full in one's integrity, without trying to artificially postpone it in medical processes extended beyond their legitimacy. He has shown what love and care might mean for oneself, for others and for the land one lives within.

There is a moment in his novel, 'The Memory of Old Jack' that I think of as the most perfect in all literature. Jack has a hired hand and they fall to conflict and in their wrestling comes a moment of decisive recognition of what is required of Jack as a farmer, as a custodian of a place, and why neither he nor his protagonist yet measure up and why they must part company for Jack knows this deficiency and hears it as a call, a vocation, and his hand neither does nor possibly ever will. It is not something that can be 'explained' but requires a certain kind of dedicated attention, and love, to see and is endlessly difficult to enact. It is beautiful.

I remember once mentioning my love of his work and my American interlocutor interceded with the thought that he was 'a conservative' (obviously a 'bad thing') and I responded that I thought of him as 'conserving', of sifting everything against the measure of the health of a community (human and ecological) and if this was 'conservative' then I must be too (though it leads one in counter-intuitive directions including coruscating accountings against racism and war).

In short, like many complex and gifted writers and thinkers, he eludes our comfortable categorisations for the truth always slips beyond them.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Outlying change agents

The most expensive paperback that I have ever bought...

and second hand...

"Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser: An Introduction and Critique" by G. Feuerstein ... (out of print for a long time)...

arrived today in the post.

I was at dinner on Saturday with close friends and was discussing historical cycles. If we had been alive in 1520, say, and were asked who, now, would be remembered in 2020, five hundred years hence, would anybody have answered Martin Luther? Or (to turn the same astrological cycle back one) if alive in 50AD who would have mentioned St Paul or indeed Jesus?

The point being that in times of exceptional transition trend spotting can be exceptionally difficult. What we imagine as dominant could be displaced by the wholly unconsidered.

Thus, Gebser is, outside certain circles, hardly recognised yet, I thought, if he is right about describing an unfolding, evolving structure to consciousness and that description holds and comes to be recognised, his stock will immeasurably rise. There is no accounting for reputation except, perhaps, the slow sifting hand of truth.

With this in mind, I found myself thinking from whence will change truly come and found myself thinking of two very disparate strands.

The first is held by Gebser and I think I would call that the 'return of consciousness'. By which I mean after a period when its significance has been first denied (by behaviourism), then reduced to an epiphenomena (of the brain), it begins its long journey back to centrality as the fundamental reality that 'composes' or 'frames' everything and whose unfolding development is the clue to understanding the true nature of things.

The second is held by Wes Jackson and I think I would call that the return to the nature of place. Wes Jackson is a geneticist directed at developing an agriculture that is framed by an emergence from the natural world rather than an imposition upon it. At his Land Institute in Kansas, they are trying to develop a 'perennial' agriculture where the crops are self seeding and the land does not need to be ploughed each year, with great disruption to the soil, but emerge in rooted cycles from the land. In doing so, they will, if successful, do something wholly radical (pun intended) and produce the first new, widespread, domesticated crops for nearly five thousand years. It would revolutionise agriculture and take it in a direction that is deeply renewing and sustainable.

Now, the two are related because Gebser observation of the next cycle of consciousness is of 'integration' where what has been held separate - man and nature - the one distanced in order to understand the other (from an 'objective' point of view') will be brought back together, enfolded, inter-subjective, so that the recognition is born that we belong within one another, symbiotic rather than conquering, navigating rather than controlling. Of this, the careful scientific work of the Land Institute is a beautiful example.

Who can tell whether these ways of seeing and acting will help remake the world but it would be a transformed world if we were able to look back, 500 years hence, and see them as (part of) a turning point.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Calm forms

Today I visited the Babara Hepworth Museum and Garden in St Ives on a cold, clear day where the light was that the artists, drawn here, most deeply sought. It has a high, quietly penetrating quality that brings out the subtlest of colouring.

Hepworth was a sculptor of ideal form - seeking the perfect instantiation of landscape and body, the abiding reality under the fluid life of appearances. She succeeded beautifully. Each carved stone, piece of wood, has a rightness about it as if only that form, and no other, could emerge from precisely that piece. They have a calm inevitability about them.

They sit here in a beautifully contained garden, a haven of  stillness, close by the bustling community of the town, where she could work, shape contemplate, part of a place yet apart.

Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is...