from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

the hospitality of the senses

A few years ago, one bright blue windy April day, my friend fellow poet and author Ken Steven and myself huddled in a sheltered corner of the ruined nunnery on the Hebridean Isle of Iona, speaking into a microphone held by a man with a strong lined face and wise, intelligent and somewhat sad blue eyes.

Ken and I were partway through leading a creative writing retreat we ran together for ten years (I now lead it alone). We'd come outside to speak to the interviewer who was recording us for – I think it was – Radio Scotland, and we were speaking on islands, creativity, imagination and spirituality, and what place poetry might have in a metaphysical world view.

The man was once Bishop of Edinburgh, then become head (I think) of the Scottish Arts Council: Richard Holloway. At the time, I didn't know much about him except that he'd been a bishop. I remember speaking with him about my difficulties with the whole monotheistic thing with which I, along with most others of us in Europe and America, was brought up. 'I lean more towards panentheism, if anything at all,' I said – my own commitment being towards the practice of Zen meditation and mindfulness 'to help me live right', but underpinned with immersion in the druidic and bardic teachings that form part of the Western Mystery Tradition.

He looked at me with those wise farseeing eyes. 'I lean towards non-theism,' he said. Later, I bought his inspiring and courageous book, Looking In The Distance. He has a new book out, which I shall also buy. (I'm interested in others' takes on this 'what's it all about?' question, especially if it's clear the thinker has really thought; and in the process questioning and expanding what I take for granted myself; along the way somehow my own practice deepens. The path I'm on feels right, and my commitment is unwavering; but as Buddhist teacher D T Suzuki said to his students: 'You're perfect just as you are, and there's always room for improvement.' Read also 'inclusivity'.)

The reason I'm remembering Richard Holloway is because he has written an excellent and insightful review of philosopher John Gray's latest book in this week's New Statesman (15-21 February). The best reviews, of course, tell you at least as much about the reviewer as the book reviewed; and when they're really good they're punctuated with the kinds of thoughts you wish you'd articulated first. And only Holloway, ex-theist, could make Gray's atheism into something spiritual, poetic and uplifting without any seeming contradiction – or, there again, maybe Gray's book does that.

Maybe I'd better read that too; the case Holloway makes for Gray's take on the consciousness of animals as non-dual beings because they have not used language to invent abstractions (my paraphrase) piques my interest.

As a writer, I'm equally intrigued with, agree with, and resist the notion that our point of separation from a state of wholeness – symbolised by the Fall in traditional Christian teachings – was the invention of writing which, according to Gray, 'gave humans the power to preserve their thoughts and experiences from time. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality. The development of writing has enabled them to construct philosophies in which they no longer belong in the natural world.'* Gray concludes that both monotheistic Christianity and secular humanism fall prey to the myth of the abstract as being more 'real'. This, he suggests, has been the illusion on which the great monotheistic religions were founded.

The trouble, as I see it, with this is that we tend to posit matter and spirit as separate, one 'good', the other 'bad'. What we need is a synthesis that allows us to respect and value both.

There is a short discussion in the piece about the power of myth; I think it needs to go further than Holloway takes it, as I believe that myth and the oral tradition can bring us back to some sort of wholeness. And, of course, I personally believe that writing can do that too. After all, it's a servant, not a master. But I also understand his thesis; Holloway too partly agrees with Gray and partly suggests that 'it [writing] is our greatest invention because through it we can have communion with other troubled souls'. Both Gray and Holloway suggest that this function is better handled through the arts than through theology and philosophy.

Anyway, all the above is also a lead-in to this beautiful little poem by Norman MacCaig with which Holloway closes his review. I hope you like it too.

A Man I Agreed With

He knew better than to admire a chair
and say What does it mean?

He loved everything that accepted
the unfailing hospitality of his five senses.
He would say Hello, caterpillar or
So long, Loch Fewin.

He wanted to know
how they came to be what they are:
But he never insulted them by saying,
Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do you mean?

In this respect he was like God,
though he was godless. – He knew the difference
between What does it mean to me?
and What does it mean?

That’s why he said, half smiling,
Of course, God, like me,
is an atheist.

Norman MacCaig

* from The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. John Gray


  1. Just when I think I have an original thought, someone else has already got there! I have been trying to write something about this idea of "the meaning of nature" for a while. A couple of years ago I was part of a women's group and another participant asked me what the bird hovering overhead was. I told her it was a buzzard. She then asked what that meant, so I told her a few things about buzzards, based on natural history. She looked at me quizzically then decided she would get a better answer from someone else. This is the kind of thing I find frustrating about the way the new age has tried to adopt shamanism and nature based religion. For me it is not a question of some mystical "meaning" but rather how can I live alongside buzzard in a way that does not impinge on him and his world. What does is mean to be buzzard rather than what does buzzard mean.

  2. Jinny, this is a wonderful and eloquently-expressed thing you say. I love too the fact that you have avoided the anthropocentric tendency to co-opt everything to serve us - even if it's only our sense of 'meaning' (I mean rather than as human prey, for instance). What you say here is profoundly important: 'For me it is not a question of some mystical "meaning" but rather how can I live alongside buzzard in a way that does not impinge on him and his world. What does it mean to be buzzard rather than what does buzzard mean.' That way, we're invited into a conversation, an exchange, with other beings; invited to enter into imaginative and empathic relationship.

    And - also - we can choose to see every being as representative of a particular quality of being, a kind of archetypal constellation of a pattern of energy; if we relate to thing-as-itself but also thing-as-symbol of a particular energy-quality, we can also enlarge our perspective and see everything as teacher. This can lead to a more inclusive worldview, and a greater depth of understanding (that might be how the shamanic can serve us).

    How to hold that respectful rather than utilitarian balance is challenging. I am seeing more and more how the philosophy of the Western world, rooted in a dualistic, hierarchical and still, sadly, androcentric perspective (I don't mean that in a sexist way - simply that is still how it is, handed down from Plato, and the Christian tradition, followed by Descartes etc) simply can't serve a world in which we consider that other beings have as much/many right/s as we have and have to be included in all our thinking. That perspective is crucial if we want to keep alive the ecosystems – for themselves, but on which we also depend.

    I'm not asking for a feminist agenda to rule, but I am asking what it might look like if our emphasis on 'top of the tree' politics and philosophy based on rationality were to be modified by the inclusion of feeling-based values too...

    Thank you. Rx


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