Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Joy of Big Questions

About twenty years ago I was roaming around in a Redwoods grove in California, and I began to think about what it meant to call something in Nature beautiful. At first I just started thinking about the question, and then I began to read about it, and later to talk with other people who were interested in the question. For about 10 years this question became a vocal point of my reading and contemplation. 

In tangible terms, all of this mental focus has resulted in little more than a few of my posts on this site such Nature Appreciation 101, Beauty in the Equation, Something Special May Happen, and The Teleology of Beauty though it enters into most of what I write. Yet I can imagine few better uses of my time than pursuing that question. It was a joy, and remains a joy.

I grew up in rural Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River and have taken joy in wild nature from as early as I can remember. Nobody taught me this or even encouraged it, it was just ingrained in my nature. In particular I loved animals, and living on the river brought me each spring and fall the great bird migrations. 

I studied natural history as much as I was able in college, and worked as a park naturalist and outdoor education instructor for several years after college. Though I have a naturally philosophical way of thinking, I fortunately took no philosophy courses in college (fortunate, because I think academic philosophy tends more to extinguish natural curiosity than enhance it).

After college, I started reading philosophy quite widely -- my introductory text being Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. By the time I took that walk through the redwood forest, I had gained a pretty good understanding of Western philosophy. After that walk, I focused for a few years on aesthetics and the philosophy of beauty. One thing that surprised me was how little had been written on the beauty of nature. Indeed, many philosophers of beauty denied that nature had beauty. In the final end, I realized I would not find an already prepared answer to my question -- that I would have to work out the answer for myself. And that is where the fun really began!

The question led me from philosophy to what I might call the anthropology of nature -- what other people's thought about the value of nature. This also lead to a long study of how various religions valued (or failed to value) wild nature, which included the study of mythology (another joyful intellectual excursion). It led also deeper into scientific findings and particularly cosmology. 

My readings went on and on in all kinds of different directions, but I won't go on and on about that. At a certain point in time, I felt I had answered the question to my satisfaction. So, what is the answer? Partly that beauty is like a butterfly -- it is best to enjoy it on the wing. Trying to pin down beauty in a verbal formula is like killing the butterfly and pinning it in a box. I won't do that. If you are interested in this question, I suggest you pursue it yourself.

Philosophy, IMHO, should be the asking of deep, heart-felt questions; it should be as impractical and beautiful as watching birds or butterflies. Unfortunately, it has been turned into a somewhat soulless, impractical, often egotistical activity. If you love big questions, the questions proper to philosophy, I suggest you follow your own inner philosopher and not get too caught up in the formal discipline.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Alternative American Dream

“They say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
 --John Lennon

I have heard and read many sad stories about people who say they worked hard all their lives; people who say they thought they were investing their money wisely and cleverly using leverage to increase their wealth through home ownership; yet when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they lost much of their savings, their jobs, and their houses.  These stories are often accompanied by a statement about pursuing the “American Dream” and the great disappointment in seeing that dream turn into something of a nightmare.  I have great sympathy for these people, but I am not so sympathetic to “the American Dream.”

The American Dream, as it stands today, is almost entirely defined by ownership and consumption.  A big house, with a big lawn; a big lawnmower to mow that lawn; a big car or two or three; big vacations, like a cruise aboard a big ship; big catalogs filled with things to fill those big houses, cars, plans and bellies….  This is not surprising, since the images of what comprises the American Dream have largely been created by marketing executives and their staff in hundreds of offices through out America (and the rest of the world).  This army of marketers has but one function, to motivate consumptive behavior by stimulating desire and hunger.

Closely associated with myth of the American Dream is that of “a lifestyle.”  In the sixties, when I was coming of age, we talked about an "alternative lifestyle."  Such a lifestyle was to be an alternative to the “normal” work and consumption filled postwar lifestyle.  It was an attempt – a short lived, largely failed attempt – to cease being a consumer.   The marketers quickly saw the commercial potential of the idea of an alternative lifestyle and quickly co-opted it.  Like the American Dream, the one's lifestyle is largely defined by what you own, wear and consume.  In addition, one's lifestyle now is portrayed in advertisements as something to which we have nearly a God-given right. 

Well, if we are going to dream, let’s dream.  How about an American Dream of community – a diverse community of people who actually share each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s company?  And, in this country that calls itself the most religious country in the world, how about a dream of people in deep communion with ultimate things, whether they call that God or Nature or the Great Spirit or something else?  How about people who find such joy in that deep communion, that they really haven’t time for trips to the mall or on-line shopping.  How about a dream of people who love the American ecology and would never think about striping from the great web of being a sterile swath of grass lawn, much less waste hours mowing it?

No investment bankers can feast their fat, ugly egos on authentic human relationship, spiritual contemplation, enjoyment of natural beauty, and empathy with all living things.  No local bankers can repossess these, leaving us homeless in our home land.  How about an American Dream that cannot be sold and repossessed? 

Unlike John Lennon, I am not a dreamer.  I have no illusions.  The marketers have won, and that is not going to change.  They are powerful and clever and well camouflaged.  They infiltrate and co-opt alternative dreams.  We aren’t going to change that, but we can change our selves.  As individuals or small groups we can live an alternative American Dream.  Imagine that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Dance

The Dance

The great galaxies dance
Upon their darkened stage
In languid pirouettes
Their graceful arms wave.

The radiant stars dance
Throughout the timeless scenes
Creating with their light steps
Astrologic dreams.

The crusty earth dances
Its jig with the sun
As the horny moon entrances
His waters to swoon.

And trees dance with seasons
And flowers dance with rain
And people dance together
Through life, love and pain
And people dance together
And live and love again.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Great Mystery

In Vol. 19 of The North American Indians, Edward Curtis writes: “there is a tendency, both by observers and the Indians themselves, to translate Wakónda (Wákan-tanka) as ‘Great Spirit.’ Such a translation is not borne out by the primitive use of the word nor by Siouan thought. The translation should be ‘Great Mys­tery.’ Without putting it in words, Siouan philosophy says, ‘We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.’”

I would suggest that the world would be a far better place if people everywhere, when speaking of “God,” “The Great Spirit,” “Tao” (or whatever other word they might use to refer to that which is the ultimate source of the world, of life, and of our selves) were to recognize and admit that “We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.”

The poet W. B. Yeats wrote in the Second Coming, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  The Siouan philosophy forms a wonderful middle ground between these extremes.  It has great conviction that this ultimate source exists -- it is not agnostic in the least -- but it also recognizes that IT is a mystery, IT’s what we don’t know.  What could be more absurd that being passionately dogmatic about a mystery?

I have to wonder if the reason people get so passionate about their religious beliefs, is that it gives them the right to feel exclusive, that “I have the truth and you don’t.”  Such spiritual egotism is the opposite of a genuine spirituality.  If the Dakota tribes really adhered to an approach to God as Curtis suggests, they were spiritually superior to the average Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Credo of an Organization to Which I'd Like to Belong

We seek knowledge, but know that we don’t know.

We seek wisdom, but recognize our foolishness.

We seek to be generous and loving, but recognize we are often selfish and resentful.

Knowing all this should make us forgiving, but we fail at that too.

We try to do our best and try to find beauty and joy in our brief sojourn on this remarkable earth, and sometime we succeed wonderfully.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Marriage of Spirit and Soul

In his book Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Titus Burkhardt writes of the chemical marriage: the marriage of gold and silver, which is symbolic of the integration and harmonization of one’s spirit and soul.  In the mythic language of alchemy, the spirit is characterized as male and associated with the sun and gold, while the soul is characterized as female and associated with the moon and silver.   In this alchemical ideal of the marriage of spirit and soul, the spirit descends to the soul and the soul rises to the spirit. 

Exactly what the alchemists meant by “spirit” and “soul” is not completely clear; a defensible interpretation is that by “spirit” the alchemist refers to that aspect of our being that articulates with words, plans and sets goals, makes judgments – the part of our being that we call upon for self-governance, that we deem as the seat of reason and rationality.  By soul, the alchemist refers to all the other aspects of our being including appetites, emotions, and the place of dreams and imagination.  In modern neurological terms, the spirit would be associated with the neo-cortex and the frontal lobes in particular, while the soul would be situated in the much older, in evolutionary terms, limbic system and brain stem.

The notion that the spirit should descend to the soul is quite foreign to Western spirituality.  Generally, in the Western tradition, the role of spirit is to ascend.  The spiritual realm is upward, celestial.  The spirit governs the being, not through cultivating the ascent (and assent) of the soul, but by the repression of body and soul.  Self-control and control of one’s appetites, emotions, and thoughts are the spiritual goal, and complete control the spiritual ideal, in much of Western spirituality (and also in the so-called Aryan influenced aspects of the spirituality of India).  Spiritual asceticism becomes a method of attaining this ideal.  There are writings in these traditions that speak of the tremendous embarrassment felt by males in having a spontaneous erection – the ideal of complete control demanded the control of even that.

The notion of the chemical marriage is quite similar to the integration of yang and yin in Taoism.  Taoism, which has many similarities to alchemy, poses as a spiritual ideal not the peaks, but rather the valley.  Lao Tse writes of the “Valley Spirit,” and posits a spiritual ideal not of upward rising tongues of fire, but the downward flowing of water.  For the Taoist, that which rises will inevitably descend.  In the ascent of the mountain, spirit seeks to leave the mess and chaos (that is so characteristic of the soul) behind.  The Valley, on the other hands, collects everything into itself.  The waters from the turbulent mountain cascades are roiled and muddied.  Taoist contemplation does not seek to wrest spiritual clarity from out these turbid waters, but simply to come to a quietness wherein the waters of themselves become calm and clear.  Then the clear waters will mirror the peaks.

A prominent Western myth is that of St. George and the dragon.  In alchemy, the soul is often associated with reptiles, and such reptiles as the snakes that wind in the Caduceus of Hermes and the dragon in China are favorable creatures.  Whereas in much Western spirituality the spiritual goal is to kill the dragon, in the alchemical and Taoist systems, the ideal is cultivate the dragon, which is to say, to cultivate the soul.*
The soul is the realm of Eros, to bring yet another mythic system into the discussion.  Eros brings great pleasure, but also great turmoil to our life.  For one who seeks self-control above all else, Eros is a bit of a snake in the grass.  For one obsessed by such self-control, Eros is a dragon.  For one who seeks to cultivate the soul, Eros is much as the myths portrayed him/her, a lovely but troublesome part of our being -- a bringer of pleasure and depth, but also of turmoil and obsession. 

It is in relation to sexuality that Western spirituality, and particularly Christian spirituality, seems rather badly to fail.  That a significant portion or the Catholic priesthood, who have vowed themselves to chastity, are found guilty of rather perverse sexuality, may well be viewed by that priesthood as just further evidence of what a horrid and powerful dragon they are fighting, but from the alchemical point of view (and the Freudian), it is simply a mistake.  While Eros, and the soul as a whole, is complex and troublesome, nothing in the soul is intrinsically bad – there is no weed in the garden of the soul that does not have a proper place and role within that garden.  And a weed in its proper place is not a weed at all, it is a flower.

And here we return to a metaphor suggested earlier -- the soul as garden and the spirit as gardener.  The spirit descends to the soul and cultivates it -- finds the proper place for each aspect of the soul to flourish.  A flourishing soul is a fulfilled soul, a deeply content soul.  A content soul fills the spirit with joy.  And this is the reward and value of this form of spirituality – soulful contentment and spiritual joy.

*  Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, is the title of a book by Thomas More.  More’s writing is deeply influenced by the psychologist James Hillman.  Hillman has waged something of a one-man crusade to bring our restless spirits back to the soul, gaining allies like More, the poet Robert Bly, and Phil Cousineau along the way.  Cousineau’s book Soul: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles is a particularly informative and enjoyable exploration of the soul’s realm.  Hillman was influenced by Jung, who was highly influenced by alchemy.  Paganism, nature religions, and religions of the Goddess also in their various ways work for the re-integration of spirit and soul.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-imagining Naturalism

(The piece below is a response to an article on the Spirtual Naturalism site.  The article can be found at

My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, which perhaps gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  From that limited understanding, I would suggest that people have always been primarily naturalistic, at least in the most general sense of that term: that there is an orderly progression of cause and effect.  At the same time, people have always perceived the world through a filter of imagination, in the most general sense of that term – mythological, ideological, or metaphysics world views. 

Modern naturalism has included a somewhat systematic attempt to decoct what it considers to be the real world from the elements that the imagination brings to that world.  It has tried to present a picture of the world cleansed of the mythological, ideological and metaphysical, and this would be alien to most earlier people.

To some extent the scientific enterprise (the main methodology of naturalism) has succeeded in this decocting (though I personally believe science is much more fraught with myth, ideology and metaphysics than is generally supposed).  And I think in doing so it has also succeeded in devaluing the imagination.  This, I think, is unfortunate.

The human imagination provides us a tool for looking at the world and seeing what is not there.  Long ago some human or group of humans looked out on the Saharan Desert in Egypt and imagined a pyramid where in reality there was only the blowing desert sand.  They then initiated the effort of making the imaginative vision into a reality.  These Egyptian pyramid makers understood only a tiny fraction of modern science and mathematics, but this did not prevent them from making the physical world dance to their imaginations.  This story can be repeated across the globe and the ages – Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Chartres, the Empire State Building.  The human imagination, for better or worse, has transformed the surface of the earth.  

The other side of seeing what is not there is that we imagine unreal causes of real effects, like imagining an angry god as the cause of a drought or a deluge; and project unreal effects on real causes, such as certain behavior deemed impious causing gods to become angry and inflicting drought or deluge.  We also come to fear things that are not there – such abstract fear, anxiety, is practically epidemic in the modern age.  (Perhaps one of the reasons there is still such a large number of faith healers of various sorts is that imaginary methods can be effective against the large array of imaginary fears and illnesses.)

In devaluing imagination, naturalism perhaps has paid too little attention to the creative side of the imagination.  Naturalistic reality is a rather bare, meaningless phenomenon.  Why wouldn’t we want to dress it in myths?  Why wouldn’t we want to organize it with a meaningful metaphysics?  The challenge for a healthy naturalism should not be diminishing imagination and its products, but learning to appreciate it for what it is.  This includes not mistaking the imaginative and the real – taking metaphors as metaphors, myths as myths, but not taking either literally.  

In seeking a “spiritual naturalism” I suspect that one of the things we are seeking is a re-integration of imagination and reason.  Reason has proven to be a very powerful tool in manipulating the external world.  Note that whether we are talking about building a pyramid or putting a person on the moon, we start with imaging these possibilities and then call in reason to help us actualize the imaginative vision.  This, I believe is the proper relationship of imagination and reason – imagination should lead and reason be the servant.  Unimaginative reasoning leads to barrenness of soul.

Imagination is also the tool, and the only tool, that can navigate our inner experience.  This is the key to the poetic function of any art -- to explore experience and then pull from that exploration deeper meanings and articulate those meanings in extended metaphors.  Such productive contemplation of experience is one of the highest elements of any spirituality.  Unfortunately, it seems that people are increasingly alienated from their inner experience, and thus unable to make blossom the meanings of the great spiritual metaphors that have been handed down to us.

I suspect that those early hunter/gatherers who created the great cave paintings that still impress us today were not alienated from their inner experience.  Compared to those primitives we may be giants in the exploitation of the earth’s resources, but we may be but pygmies in the creative marshaling of our inner resources.