Further thoughts on Radical Hope.
When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants, make
adversity the path of awakening.
Jamgon Kongtrul, The Great Path of Awakening (Tr. by Ken McLeod)
This paper is a follow-up to one I originally posted, entitled ‘Everything and Nothing’, on the old CPA website in June 2015, but which was included in the new website in November of that year. The paper was partly a response to the CPA day on Radical Hope held in Bristol in April and an attempt to understand what is meant by ‘radical hope’, as distinct from simple optimism. I also tried to explore how we might return to some of the perennial, or ultimate, values we have lost sight of in these very uncertain times.
In ‘Everything and Nothing’ I referred to the scientific consensus that, as many who read this know, unless we curb our carbon emissions dramatically and quickly, we are heading towards an average temperature rise of four degrees this century, with all the implications for our ‘civilised’ way of life and for all life on Earth. The first step in any kind of ‘awakening’ must be awareness of this threat.
Yet awareness of climate change, and the threat of extinction that comes with it, seems impossible for many to contemplate. It is perhaps not so surprising that denial and business-as-usual is the common response. While Greens have been aware of the ecological implications of our consumer culture - and have been warning about it - for some fifty years the CPA has recently formed to ask why, when disaster now looms more and more clearly, too many people continue to ignore it.
Facing the reality about climate change today, as affiliates to the CPA realise, can be shocking and traumatising. No wonder we are drawn to despair. I was thinking about this after seeing Judith (Anderson)'s recent response to yet another article she was posting on the CPA googlegroup about the ever growing signs - this time the unprecedented event of hundreds of icebergs breaking off the Greenland peninsula and floating out into the North Atlantic. Judith's brief and understandable remark accompanying the link was: 'I expect some of you have read this report. Weep.'
Judith's comment also put me in mind of George Monbiot's impassioned and informed columns in the Guardian. I used to wonder how he managed to maintain his motivation as he fumed week after week at our relative political inertia in the face of mounting evidence of ecological degradation. When would he also simply break down and weep? I asked myself. Did he ever feel like giving up?
But it's crucial we don't just despair. Nor do we have to. Why George Monbiot and many others don't give up is a good question, and one that we might do well to think more about. It raises for me an issue for the CPA. What do we do after we acknowledge our feelings of despair and hopelessness? I am not sure whether a purely therapeutic culture has an answer to this. Therapy, psychoanalytic or otherwise, will help and encourage us to face difficult feelings but I wonder whether ‘therapy’ itself is a sufficient response to the climate emergency. It may be a start but, in its anthropocentrism, is it still too entangled in a modern Western culture responsible for the emergency in the first place?
For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’; we, however, who used to think we have understood it have become perplexed.
Plato, translated by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time.
We live in a time of great perplexity. There are the current local questions of why the U.K. voted to leave the European Community and the U.S. elected a president who seems temperamentally and intellectually unsuitable for the office. But more than this are the wider issues that perplex us: why, when we have the technology to feed the world, so many millions are starving and dying; why, when we devote so much intellectual energy to the science of economics there is a huge and increasing gap between the rich and the poor, within and between nations; why there is so much hate and anger in the world; why there are terrorist groups who kill themselves and others against all ethical wisdom; and why, of course, when we know our carbon economy is set to doom all life on Earth, we are doing too little about it.
Perplexity in itself is not a reason for despair. On the contrary there are those who think it is our natural condition. After all, we really don’t know what the universe is for. Or what we are doing here in it. It was Martin Heidegger’s view that the meaning of our being involves the questioning of it. In other words, who we are is an issue for us. In a recent book, A Case for Irony, the philosopher and psychoanalyst, Jonathan Lear, who also wrote Radical Hope, argued for the return of irony, not in the conventional sense of irony as clever or satirical thinking, but irony as real perplexity. He cited Socrates as a prime exemplar. When Socrates is interpreted as a dissembler and gadfly by his interlocutors in Plato's dialogues, they assume that he knows the answers to his own persistent questions when, in truth, he doesn't. Socrates is genuinely perplexed but believes this to be a more honest basis for an ethical, good, or excellent life, even worth taking the poison for! Only in perplexity can one discover true knowledge, attainable by first recognising our own ignorance and delusion.
There are degrees of knowledge and perplexity, of course, as there are certainty and uncertainty. Just before he died E.F.Schumacher, famous for Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered, handed the manuscript of his last book, Guide for the Perplexed, to his daughter, telling her that it contained the core of wisdom that his life had been leading up to. In the opening chapter 'On Philosophical Maps' he pointed out that, by looking for certain knowledge we may miss out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life and he quoted St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, that 'the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things.' 'Slender' knowledge indicates uncertainty and Schumacher comments: 'Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as the lesser things can be known, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.'
It is important that we leave room for uncertainty when predicting, as science does, the material consequences of our fossil fuel economy, if only to allow ourselves to think about climate change in more than just scientific terms. To contemplate its meaning and significance for us in a philosophical and existential sense may be as important as weighing up the practical consequences. Should the CPA be thinking about this? Perhaps there are more crucial things than merely our survival. Perhaps if we gave thought to these we might be more likely to survive, along with the rest of life.
Contemplating climate change
Nothing compares to making the affliction itself into medicine.
The Secret of the Golden Flower (Tr. by Thomas Cleary)
The challenge of climate change may be the most difficult we face, given the threat to our existence, but its contemplation, beyond the question of our survival, may also lead to new and transformed understandings about ourselves and the universe we live in. As I have mentioned before, modern Western science may have provided us with the means to destroy ourselves along with all life on the Planet but never has the Earth it discloses looked more mysterious and magical. To think how we might also be a part of the mystery and magic could counter-balance the despair. The European Enlightenment tradition developed the simple belief that all knowledge might be accumulated in one hubristic encyclopaedic venture - a circle of knowledge - that contained all there was to know. And this remains a conscious or unconscious belief of many orthodox scientists, despite the twentieth century revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Science is, however, undergoing a new revolution, transforming itself from its adherence to the dogmatic assumptions of materialist and secular ideology and turning to an appreciation of the lifeworld within everything - from the endless reaches of subatomic matter to the infinite spaces of the cosmos, as well as to the immaterial dimension in the human mind and its place on the life spectrum. In fact the science of mind may be our key to bridging the imagined gap between the material and the immaterial worlds, and core to any awakening in this century.
This may also be the heart of an integral consciousness which Schumacher writes about and which can help 'guide' us through our perplexities. It is at the centre of any perennial philosophy. It is the 'unity consciousness' that Ken Wilber expounds in one of his most popular and readable books, No Boundary, written as a follow-up to his first, more difficult The Spectrum of Consciousness. No Boundary, subtitled Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, is a slim but comprehensive account and map of the world's psychologies and therapies, from psychoanalysis to Zen, existentialism to Tantra. It may be an important text for any psychological approach to climate science.
The spirit of integrative thinking applies to all our human endeavours. It is helpful to explore how the different psychological and therapeutic approaches relate to each other but more important is the integration of everything. No one discipline alone can tell us how to face climate change, the new meta-context for all our thinking. We all need, in the wise words of the American nun, Pema Chodron, to ‘start where we are’, but we don't need to stay there. What was heartening about last year's leadership conference in London, organised by the CPA committee, was the way it brought people together from different fields in a common dialogue. This has been happening elsewhere, of course, for some time but what was significant in this event was that the initiative was taken by the Psychology Alliance, signalling that there needs to be a dimension of psychological understanding in the overall movement. Interestingly, people from other fields seem to be much more open to a psychological perspective than psychological professionals sometimes are to ecological perspectives.
The value of an integrative and dialogic approach is that everyone learns from each other, both in how you learn what others are doing in their own spheres but what you also learn about your own speciality by trying to communicate it to people outside. There is a strong possibility that individual disciplines, ’psychology’ for instance, may be transformed in the process.
This suggests that integrative thinking is not only about inter-disciplinary initiatives. The boundaries between different subjects may be radically changed but this may lead in turn to intra-disciplinary transformations as well as inter-disciplinary ones. This would also facilitate the creation of new and shared concepts, including the language used to express them. Psychologists and psychotherapists tend to be more conservative in this respect so it may be more challenging for us, but exciting for those who take the risk. The integrative spirit also pervades the thinking behind the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ today that promises to transform political thinking in the future.
The One and the Many
Integrative thinking is not just about seeing the pattern within our relationships with each other and with the subject areas that individually preoccupy us, but also about understanding what the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, called ‘the pattern that connects’ within all things. The philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who was a contemporary of Renee Descartes, was famous for his description of the universe as a single unity. In Spinoza's seventeenth century conceptualisation, God and nature are one 'substance', as against Descartes' assertion of the dichotomy of mind and matter which our modern scientific culture is built upon. Spinoza was accused of being a pantheist and atheist and excommunicated but, like the ancient Neo-Platonists, he could be seen as following Plotinus' notion of the One and the Many - the uni-verse as One, or as the Buddhists say 'One Taste', and the Many as the infinite emanations of the One, 'The Ten Thousand Things', according to the Chinese, which come from the One.
This touches on the core of poetic truth. When W.B.Yeats famously wrote in his 1920 poem, ‘The Second Coming’:
Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
and T.S.Eliot in The Waste Land asked and asserted around the same time:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out
of this stony rubbish? .....only a heap of broken images
they encapsulated the sense of fragmentation and chaos that characterise our modern age. William Blake, however, had also expressed the life-enhancing potential of the poetic spirit in his ‘Auguries of Innocence’ only a little more than a hundred years before:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Beyond poetic truth
Poetic truth is no observer of conventional boundaries. It moves, as the philosopher, Alexandre Koyre, put it in the title of his classic book - which Blake would doubtless have approved of - From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. It takes us beyond itself. Ken Wilber’s notion of No Boundary is a re-description of the Buddhist concept of Emptiness, the experience of mind beyond conceptual or imaginative thinking. 'Emptiness' doesn't mean literally no boundary. It means that, while in a relative world there will always be boundaries, in an absolute sense the universe is a seamless unity without boundaries, An awareness of absolute emptiness doesn't simply efface boundaries, it allows us to keep redrawing them and bringing more clarity and vividness into our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The shortest, perhaps most famous of Buddhist wisdom sutras - The Heart Sutra - reminds us that form, or structure, and emptiness go together. You cannot have one without the other. They are always re-defining each other.
We have lost touch with the sense of emptiness - the essential reality of absolute space, inner as well as outer - that helps us to redraw the boundaries. A boundary is not a fixed thing but a moving process. Nor is it just something that separates us, but the line that joins, relates and integrates. Like any membrane, though, it needs to breathe. It is our essential source of inspiration. We need to keep moving with it. And where best to start than with our own minds? In the psychological assessment of people in my work I used to draw encouragement from Andrew (Samuel)'s enlightened notions of the ‘political’ and ‘plural psyche’, as extending what we thought of as 'psychological'. His books prompted me to think also of the scientific, economic, social and religious, or spiritual, psyche? In the end mind goes beyond all boundaries.
Who, or what, are we?
When an extreme is reached, there is a reversion.
The Secret of the Golden Flower (Tr. by Thomas Cleary)
What I am suggesting is that just as we face an unprecedented planetary emergency, so it is also an opportunity to redefine ourselves and ask who we essentially are. Andrew Simms, fellow of the new economics foundation, gave the first Coleridge lecture of the New Weather Institute in Bristol last year, which was published with the title: We are more than this. In it he highlighted how any 'new economics' hinges on the meaning we give to human nature. He suggested that neo-liberal economics is predicated on three assumptions about our 'dark' personality traits: 'Machiavellianism (tendencies to deceit), narcissism (over-inflated sense of self-worth) and psychopathy (lack of guilt and remorse).'
Simms goes on to ask whether humanity really does 'smell this bad' and to ask whether our notion of 'economic man' is ready to be 'removed from the centre of our theoretical solar system, much as the Earth once had to be replaced by the Sun to correct a similar mistaken belief.' This is a very interesting thought. Could it be that our modern human-centred psychology is akin to a Ptolemaic system that patches up a solar system with ever more complicated epicycles to prove deludedly that the Sun does go round the Earth? It was not until a thousand years later Johannes Kepler, following Copernicus and Galileo, emerged to put the Sun back in the centre and suggest that we were elliptically, not centrally, related to it - and the rest of the universe. It could be said that Kepler's de-centering of the Earth let light back into our thinking and prepared the way for Newton and the European Enlightenment? Perhaps we are ready for a new psychological enlightenment. Perhaps we are about to learn that we are here for the Earth, not that the Earth is here for us. Perhaps we need a Declaration of Human Responsibilities as well as Human Rights.
Is it time we let go of our fixed, hard-wired view of 'human nature' and realise we are now waking up to a more liberated understanding of ourselves? In the far-east there has always been the notion of an original Buddha, or awakened, nature beyond the idea of human nature. This is our essential nature, not separate from human nature but contextual to it.
At the same time a new global balance may be in sight between the world-views of East and West. While the philosophical and psychological essence of Buddha Dharma has been revered and developed in Tibet over the last thousand years, the West has evolved a social, political, and economic awareness - though, in its purely capitalist drive, lacking a sufficiently ethical dimension. Integrating the insights of the inner, psychological world of the East with the social and political understandings of the West would help us bridge the gap between the 'two cultures' - within and between different cultures - which has bedevilled our history.
The beauties of the highest heavens and the marvels of the sublimest realms are all within the heart: this is where the perfectly open and aware spirit concentrates. Confucians call it the open center, Buddhists call it the pedestal of awareness, Taoists call it the ancestral Earth, the yellow court, the mysterious pass, the primal opening.
The Secret of the Golden Flower (Tr. by Thomas Cleary)
To effect this integration requires both traditions to acknowledge their limitations as well as their achievements. In the East there has been suppression of scientific and political evolution while the Western philosophical and psychological disciplines have proscribed a practice that promises to take them beyond scientific and analytic thought. In his Guide for the Perplexed Ernst Schumacher devotes two chapters to the principle of 'adequacy' which addresses the question of how we are enabled to know anything about the world around us. Plotinus said 'Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.' In other words nothing can be known without there being an appropriate 'instrument' in the makeup of the knower. As Schumacher writes: 'This is the Great Truth of adaequatio (adequateness), which defines knowledge as adaequatio rei et intellectus: the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.'
Plotinus famously said in his essay on 'Beauty': 'Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful.' This is expressed in Vedantic thought as 'That Art Thou', illustrated and expounded by Aldous Huxley in the first chapter of his landmark anthology and study, The Perennial Philosophy, first published in 1946. It is the principle that we are composed of the very world we like to think we are objectively examining. In order to really know it, should we not also examine ourselves as an expression of that (objective) world that appears so perplexing to us?
In order to be 'adequate' requires us to develop a practice that goes beyond analytic thinking. Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition have shown us how to explore the personal mind and its passions but has stopped short of an experience of mind that goes beyond the personal. Jung, of course, went much further, as did other transpersonal therapists, and schools of systemic therapy have developed the reality of family and 'stranger-group' processes, demonstrating the connections between inter-personal and intra-personal processes.
But whereas the practice of contemplative 'science' has historically been regarded - and persecuted - as heretical in the West and confined to its poetic and literary traditions, in the East its mystics have been celebrated and revered. The challenge today is how to integrate the scientific insights of the inner world of the East with the material scientific and political knowledge of Europe and the modern West. Isn’t this what a global consciousness should aim for, rather than simply establish an economic, trading globalisation? It's what the ancient Silk Road made possible, wisdom accompanying trade. Perhaps the spirit of the Silk Road has now begun to extend globally into Europe, the Americas, and beyond.
The value of integrative practice
An integrative practice encourages us to look beyond our own disciplines and see ourselves from other perspectives. Andrew Simms, suggests, for instance, how, from an alternative view of economics, we might also think differently about psychology. In a well-known parable Buddhism tells how we are all like blind people describing the nature of an elephant by assuming it is to be identified with the single anatomical part each can touch and feel. The shape of the whole elephant only becomes evident when we talk to each other and are able to form a composite or integrated picture.
I have been reading Pankaj Mishra’s recent book, Age of Anger, about the ‘great
waves of paranoid hatreds that seem inescapable in our close-knit world’. It strikes me that he provides a good example of a fresh perspective from the East of the elephant of the European and Western mind. He would perhaps approve of this comparison because, in addition to his extensive knowledge of Western culture, he has also written a personal account of his own experience of Buddhism, An End to Suffering. His writings provide original insights into the Western mind from an Asian perspective, the outside as it were, while at the same time being more ‘inside’ it than many of us are. For me he impressively reframes European history and thought and is an example of integrative thinking on a global scale.
Entering into dialogue with others can be difficult and challenging because of the different technical or idiosyncratic languages everyone uses. It’s enjoyable and rewarding, of course, to learn new languages, but it’s also important to look for a common language or currency. Perhaps this would be helped if we were to focus on the common values that unite, as well as the different languages that differentiate us. The core value spheres are ethics, science, and aesthetics - or art - known classically as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful - or Sublime.
These value spheres apply to all our endeavours and it is important to think of them as a unity. Ethics has to be wise and aesthetic to be authentic or it becomes a mindless and unattractive morality. Science, whether natural or human, likewise should be ethical and sensitive to itself as also an art form to be true science or it becomes an instrumental and technocratic scientism. Art should also take account of the Good and the True to go beyond itself, or it can become purely subjective and self-referential. These are values we can measure all our different activities and thinking by.
Awakening to a timeless perspective
Finally I want to argue for retaining a wider sense of perspective amidst all the bad news now coming our way. I am always amazed at the equanimity and humour of the Dalai Lama and his fellow lamas around the world, maintained despite the killing of hundreds of thousands of their people and the destruction of countless Tibetan temples by the Chinese in the last century. They seem to know how to wear their suffering lightly. Are they aware of something we have lost sight of? Although the first great truth Gautama Buddha taught was the existence of suffering, this was followed by three other great truths which teach how to understand and overcome suffering. In the words of the Anguttara-Nikaya: 'He who recognises the existence of suffering, it's cause, it's remedy, and its cessation, has fathomed the four noble truths. He will walk in the right path.’
One of the causes of suffering is ignorance and the point of the Buddhist story of The Blind Men and the Elephant is to deepen our perspective on the world by opening our eyes to the views of others. Climate change and ecological depredation are our greatest challenge but they are also our greatest opportunity. Out of the seeming chaos all around us a new and exciting order may be emerging.
Yes, we need to see our specialised areas of knowledge and experience in a more unified and integrated way. But do we not also need to go beyond our purely human perspective, perhaps to reflect on Aquinas' 'slenderest knowledge of the highest things' or to see everything, in Spinoza’s phrase, sub specie aeternitas, in the light of eternity?
One day the cosmos will continue, of course, without us. The Earth is a tiny dot, a speck in an infinite universe, as our cosmologists have demonstrated. But for now what a dot, what a speck! where life and mind, including homo sapiens, with all his imperfections, has emerged and evolved. The French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal - who was terrified by the vastness of space - wrote that while human beings may be, ‘like reeds, the weakest thing in nature, they are thinking reeds’. He also reminded us we have hearts, and that ‘the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’.
The great metaphysicians testify that the sheer fact of life - of Being, of ‘Isness’ - is supreme. The death, or non-being, we so much fear, is not the opposite of life but included in it. In his famous essay,’To philosophise Is to learn how to die’, Montaigne, who thought we shouldn't be afraid of dying, reminded us death was a part of the order of the universe, an integral part of the life of the world. In other words death is not a thing in itself - neither our individual nor collective death. Nor does it have to have ‘dominion over us’.
Moreover, while Life includes death, it itself is indestructible, as, incredibly, are we. We may feel like a drop in the ocean, but the indestructible ocean is in us, or, as the title of the Dalai Lama’s book about modern science describes it, The Universe (is) in a Single Atom. Is it not time to realise our identity with everything around us? The unity of the great chain of Life - the One and the Ten Thousand Things - is the essential truth we need to re-awaken to, for it promises to sustain us through all our daily fears, anxieties, and terrors.