Written September 2001

Aftermath: the word was repeated endlessly after September 11th. It means consequences – literally “following with” – from the old German “events after the mowing”. What will follow this grim harvest? A harvest (old Germanic again, “the feast of fall”) of what sowing? “As ye sow, so also shall ye reap”. But this is a trap – of language, of culture – however mobile. Our beliefs are shaped by where and when we are, and how we speak, our language, our access to knowledge of the world. We cannot be held wholly accountable for this, or for how we live, surely, since it is so much a product, a function of the time, and the physiological and geo-political space we occupy. Even if we climb clear enough just to observe – a rare feat – we are still held within the expectations of our cultural and moral peers. We can be odd, different or unexpected, we can even be rank outsiders, but we are never free completely of the pins of birth or the ties of when, where and how our formative years were conducted. And nor can “they”, whoever we mean when we use that word. 

A few days after that day, it was the autumn equinox, a traditional time for celebration, here in this northern hemisphere, of gathering in what was sown in the spring. Metaphors take on a life of their own, of course, and give an air of predictability to what could never have been predicted. Language is all metaphor, stories lodged in cultural meaning, so we fool ourselves if we think we can ever speak neutrally. An ‘urban’ (or rather ‘internet’) ‘legend’ circulated that Nostradamus predicted the fall of the twin towers. This was revealed, with a little research (unfortunately not undertaken by those reporting on that week’s Sunday Show) to be a hoax. It fitted the mood, though, that prank, tipping the scales ever more heavily in favour of an inevitable reaction, the deep animal urge to slash back, to see it all in black and white, their tribe versus ours, to kill and maim the evil killers and maimers, to fulfil “what is written”, calling down Armageddon and ending them for once and for all. 

We here in Ireland watched and sighed, appalled and hurting too. We waited silently for what would be next. We had no choice, it seems, but to acquiesce, despite the rhetoric that all decisions would be democratic. America, its nostrils stinging from the fumes and fury, the horror and the grief lived and re-lived in the minds and on the screens of the nation, would not be unmoved. Forces and resources, reservists and governments funds, and language, all was mobilised. The battle is now waiting to be won. Can it ever be won? What are we fighting for? Peace? How can one fight for that?

When I heard the news (remember? Where were you?) I first recalled transatlantic ties. Mine are more western or west coast – Los Angeles, Colorado, Seattle – on the whole. Except my step-grandmother, very old now, who kept us all together as a relatively close and loving extended family for many years while I was growing up, in Scotland, and who now lives on Manhattan Island. My sister in Colorado rang, still mesmerised by grief and anger. “One minute we were just sitting here, fat, happy Americans. Now all that’s gone.” I baulked at what, to me, was such delusion. Fat and happy, yes, but at whose expense? My reactions, like hers, were governed by where I am, and why. By choices made on the backs of other choices, drawing us increasingly apart. 

Reactions to 9/11 in the global North spread across a spectrum and I don’t know how much choice any of us have on where our views emerge. At one end is the view that the attack was in some sense understandable, that violence begets violence and something as selectively defined as “terrorism” can never be wiped out as long as injustices remain. And yet, even among these, there is a sense that the twin towers attack was monstrous theatre, a strike at the beating heart of a free and freedom-loving city, in the land, and within sight of the Statue, of Liberty. Even the most liberal of democrats accepts that a response is necessary and must be swift, and strong. At the other end is the view that the perpetrators and anyone in any way associated, including but not limited to their kith and kin, their clans, tribes, and even compatriots, should be razed from the face of the Earth, obliterated, all vestiges destroyed. This gut reaction is fed by media reports of poignant final moments looped and served as evidence and it becomes increasingly hard to counter. We cannot live, it is said, in a world menaced by tyrants and fanatics. We would never do a thing like this ourselves and we will rid the planet of these scum because it’s us against them, our culture, with its stalwart commitment to rights and life and freedom, versus their grimly oppressive dogma that leads to totalitarianism and death. 

The grey area where nuance plays out is muffled in the slanging match: is there a positive alternative? Is there a way to talk about the way we talk about what’s going on that offers some hope for our being able to come to terms with what we are, and do, that addresses causes as well as consequences? My sister is appalled that I’m dragging my feet in not whole-heartedly applauding the American Way. War, or What? She slams the phone down on me. I root for peace and reconciliation but it feels weak, a failure, and our relationship will take long months to heal, and may never. Yet the only thing left for me to do is to do nothing, to wait, a negation of the clamour for action. The world keeps turning. The bombs keep falling. The refugees carry their children, hollow-eyed. 

Two parallel situations spring to mind. In the first, a man, a good friend, living in the west of Ireland, begins binge-drinking again, despite a long, arduous abstinence, and attendance at AA. He declares to us one night what we already know: he’s gay. We still love you, we exclaim, half-embarrassed, half-annoyed. What can we do? It’s still outside the spectrum of acceptable behaviour here and would kill his elderly parents, he says, and we believe him. It’s likely to get him badly beaten up if it comes out in the local town, particularly if he declares it while he’s drunk, as he’s likely to do. He can’t leave – he’s his parents’ carer. There is no outlet, no chance of a relationship, no alternative that he can see. So he drinks himself into oblivion until, broke and hungover, five days later, he’s back on the wagon again. 

The second is the state of relations between Ireland, Northern, and Republic of. Sometimes this is cooperative, but all too often there is open hostility or even just blank lack of acknowledgment. How much choice do we have to react to one another like this? Bound by class, culture, emotional and educational experiences, is it inevitable that we are driven by the urge to be of this tribe, and not of that? Most astonishingly, and depressingly, I have noted this suspicion and dislike within the yoga communities on each side. 

The spectrum of debate ranges from an open-door policy where no one is refused entry and there is free passage between organisational membership in either jurisdiction to a justification of discrimination based on differing professional criteria and a commitment to the integrity of differing systems. Both make some sense. Each has a problem. Openness could mean dilution of identity, while discrimination can quickly become negative, especially if it is the result of subjective assessments which, in small communities, are often personality-based. Any over-arching body is always and only the sum of its human parts. 

We are often subject to the mantra, in the world of yoga and the broader world of therapeutic practice, that we are entirely responsible for our actions, and the reactions that we elicit from others, and from the wider world, can be traced back to how we have behaved initially. This, I suggest, requires reflection. There is perhaps only one position on the spectrum open to any one of us at each particular moment, and we land up there for reasons that are multifarious and complex, including such bizarre and random influences as the weather, and whether we’re in love. But there’s a way of standing outside ourselves that is key to yoga practice, and that is the practice of self awareness, shining the light on what state we’re in before committing to a place on the wheel of opinion. Each time we do this, we open to more fluidity and flexibility in our responses. We may not be infinitely supple but nor are we rigidly tied to the view that first appears. Not to recognise this is as duplicitous and disingenuous, in fact, as irresponsible, as believing that not seeing the faces of dying Afghani children implies that those faces do not exist. 


Beneath Western Skies

The mountainous clouds revolve above the flatlands and the sea

The bones of a land which once was furred in forests and their prowling

Now just the howling wind bullies the rock and wave, tossing up foam

And styrofoam, Japanese tackle and Norwegian twine. Tractor tracks

Stamp their reminder of who owns what now, and the broken toothed

Fence line, barbed wire buried where we used to camp, where the storm

Ate into the bank, year on year, pen-insular, injecting its venomous bite

Fighting the fight of weather and wind, the heavy tread of a slow step

Farming is husbandry, a wedded violence that beats against the seeping

Sand beneath the treated land. The cattle turn against it, hunkered and still

Until it peels back to reveal the carcass of a car, a skull, the detritus of all

We failed to recognise, or love, or fear. 

Love is Green: compassion in response to the ecological emergency

My book has been published, and I’d love anyone who wants to please to review it as soon and as thoroughly as possible. I can get copies for you from the publisher, though I don’t know if these will be hard copies or online links. Whichever, I would very much appreciate some feedback. Please be honest, but as kind as you can.

In other news, I’m going to Dublin Castle tomorrow for the National SDG Stakeholder Forum. No idea really how I’m going to be able to contribute, but I’ll use it as an opportunity to get the idea that we have three relationships that intertwine and that can, with the attunement to compassion, allow us to let love show us what to do, through to people. The emergency cranks up each day, but it’s vital that we keep facing down doom and denial, and encouraging small personal, and focus on larger political shifts.

Is there a highest good?

I haven’t written anything here for years. It’s odd. It feels a little like the conversation I had with my son yesterday, which was also odd, but profoundly moving and poignant. Like having a conversation with one’s most private self. Is there a most private self? That’s what I want to talk about here: hierarchies. Is there a higher self? A greatest good?

My son and I agreed we’re not ‘group’ people. We’re not misanthropic, we just prefer dealing with people as individuals, and prefer it when people deal with us as individuals. It reminded me of something I’d read about Ayn Rand saying that the smallest minority on earth is the individual, and if we don’t respect individual rights, then we’re not defending the rights of minorities. This struck me as both paradoxical (how on earth do we respect the rights of all individuals, and what are those ‘rights’? I’ve always thought ‘rights’ were rather artificial concepts we give ourselves, usually only human selves, in order to protect ourselves from the greed and exploitative tendencies of others, usually more powerful. But I never really understood why rights defined like this should be restricted to humans, since this automatically suggests that those who are least able to defend, or even understand that they have, their own rights, are those at greatest risk of exploitation). I’ll write about all that in another blog, about Sartre, and Nausea, and mental health, and loneliness, and being at home in the universe. All these ideas seem intimately connected, and important to explore. I’ll write about self criticism, fragmentation, loneliness, and the capacity to feel the consolations of connectedness through being in nature, and giving care and attention to the ‘more than human’ world. Is there a hierarchy of rights? That’s rather an Orwellian idea, don’t you think: some are more equal than others? Yet how on earth do you grant equal rights, unless those rights are vanishingly insignificant (I have a right to what, to life? But that right must not infringe on the right of all other humans to life: how could that work, in a world of limited resources, and more, in a world where so many of the sources of energy and material substance are controlled by so very, very few).

This all connects with what I wanted to write about today, which is inspired by the Tricycle Dharma ( site and its many wonderful posts. I’ll post a link to the relevant page below. I was particularly motivated to write about the difficulty I have with defining a ‘higher way’ to respond to the overwhelmingly huge and clamouring needs of the world, human and more than human, that echo around us now, and that can overwhelm even more if we are constrained by financial, emotional, relationship, health or work challenges ourselves. My own challenge is the inability, so far, to realise my ‘greatest good’, the dream of pursuing academic research, and of communicating the three ‘big’ ideas I unearthed during my PhD research (I’ll write about them separately in another blog, though I may summarise them below, in case, in the words of the great song, tomorrow never comes). The dream of being a successful writer who communicates difficult ideas effectively, and who is read (do I really want to be read? Can one ever be understood? My perspective has no equivalent, so how can I make someone see what it’s like from where I’m looking? And isn’t there a tremendous arrogance in believing that what I have to say has not been said effectively already, in general terms at least (which are the only terms the world seems prepared to understand things in) by all the greatest authors of the past? I want to write short stories, poems, novels and dramas about the juxtaposition of being an outsider on the inside, of being unable to fit and yet being at home in the universe, of being unsuccessful and yet feeling rich as Croesus when I view my estate, which is an attitude of compassionate attunement, and an understanding of how to live in harmony.

My dream includes, also, teaching yoga in a new way, including ecological activism as a part of the practice, recognising and developing the transformational power of the shift in perspective yoga gives one. My dream is also to continue the work I’ve undertaken, a mammoth task, to open an ecotherapeutic community in Ireland based on the ecotherapeutic benefits of being in nature, and of paying attention to, and engaging with, the more than human world, in a non-dualistic way, as a part of what we are.

These are ambitious dreams, I’m sure you will agree. I become overwhelmed by the amount of work required, particularly given my circumstances – working in a low paid, low status job, with a young family scattered across two nations, in an insecure housing situation, and so on. The problem with being overwhelmed is that I become (and because I’m human, I think this is probably a feature of every human experience) paralysed. I stall. I use every distraction possible to avoid the enormity of the task at hand. Wrestling with the problem in an intellectual, rational manner does not provide answers. I cannot think myself out of the entangling trap of demands, unmet needs, violence, collapse, and a sense that there is no place in this world of groups, communities, clubs and meet-ups for someone whose identity refuses to conform to any generalised definition.

When I meditated last night (or, in Eliot’s wonderful phrase, ‘wept and fasted, wept and prayed’, because that’s what it really feels like, struggling with insomnia, practicing Yoga Nidra while I twitch and fidget and am unable to lie still, wanting to read but being incapable of focus, eyes simply too bleary to unravel the blur of words), I thought of failure, and of where it might be possible to find some small seed of comfort. Stillness and silence eluded me for a long time. It was as though my very being was a scream, unendurable agony of ineffectiveness resonating in every cell. I began again. Right hand thumb, forefinger, long finger, ring finger, and so on. There were seconds of silence that opened between the clamouring restlessness that would not allow me to keep physically still, moments when my body collapsed into a kind of desperate death state. Savasana. I became a corpse. But I’m alive, and so I could see myself becoming this stillness, this waiting, this listening self.

Apart from the obvious good of sleep, knitting back the shredded and torn experiences of the day, the bubbling cauldron of my subconscious burst again and again into questions of hierarchy: how can I have a ‘higher’ self? How can there be a ‘greater’ good in a universe that has no inherent value. Unless we agree that there is a ‘good’ inherent in systems (and hence in us). This ‘good’ is actually a ‘good for’ – there are things that are good for us, but better when that ‘good’ resonates with what is ‘good for’ all the systems we’re enmeshed in. Obviously there are some inherent contradictions here – energy coming to me is not available to other systems. However, when we meditate on our interconnectedness, and even, I think, when we consider in a methodically rational way, how energy distributes itself, how we are energy, and how the balance between having enough to sustain us so we can contribute most effectively to the energetic unfolding that contains us, we come to understand that the highest good we can express is to attune and act in harmony with this unfolding. This means, in a sense, that there is a highest good, and that my highest self is that which recognises, attunes to and acts in accordance with this recognition of energetic flow that balances my needs with those of all the systems within which I’m enmeshed. If there is a state of existence that is ‘good for’ systems, that means there is value, of a kind, inherent in the universe. If value is inherent in the universe, do we call this ‘good’ God? That might be a big step to take. I’ll meditate on it.

Being prey – by Val Plumwood

Possibly the most haunting and beautiful account of where we actually fit, and why we’re such a fear-driven species.

In the early wet season, Kakadu’s paperbark wetlands are especially stunning, as the water lilies weave white, pink, and blue patterns of dreamlike beauty over the shining thunderclouds reflected in their still waters. Yesterday, the water lilies and the wonderful bird life had enticed me into a joyous afternoon’s idyll as I ventured onto the East Alligator Lagoon for the first time in a canoe lent by the park service.

“You can play about on the backwaters,” the ranger had said, “but don’t go onto the main river channel. The current’s too swift, and if you get into trouble, there are the crocodiles. Lots of them along the river!”

I followed his advice and glutted myself on the magical beauty and bird life of the lily lagoons, untroubled by crocodiles. Today, I wanted to repeat that experience despite the drizzle beginning to fall as I neared the canoe launch site…

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The purpose of this blog

This blog relates to a philosophical theory that I’ve been developing called ‘realisation as agency’. Very simply, this means that when we ‘realise’, as in, come to an awareness of, or creatively intuit, the current, dynamic systems we are enmeshed in, we become agents, to the degree that the realisation allows us to shift all the relationships, subtly but significantly, that we are involved in. This contrasts with our traditional view of agency, that it runs along the parallel lines of a dualistic set of events, involving a mental deliberation, leading to a physical action. I think this picture, or ‘narrative’ of our agency is a hangover from the Cartesian, dualistic understanding of the world, and without knowing that we do so, we still carry that picture of the world, or rather that paradigm, as the underlying structure of our understanding. We see ourselves as dualistic beings in a dualistic world and this sense of having a mind and a body, and sometimes even a mortal body and an immortal soul, colours our perception of every other relationship we have.

The most urgent among these relationships is the one we have with the ecological context (we normally call this the ‘environment’ but again, that gives a very ‘inside’/’outside’ view of the relationship, whereas we now know that this distinction is not a valid one). The conclusion of my thesis stated that if we understand our agency differently, we will begin to use the agency we have – realisation – and this will shift how we relate to the ecological context. In other words, dealing with the kinds of urgent problems we have – deforestation, desertification, exponential population growth, pollution, climate change, and so on – using the dualistic paradigm cannot address the problem. Realisation can.

Revising how we see ourselves in this way also affects how we relate to one another, including to those who take the polar opposite view to us, whether on issues like climate change, or on issues to do with politics, sexuality, or other areas where strong views emerge. Instead of being combative, the approach I describe is radically non-confrontational. We can still become enraged by issues of social injustice, but we can begin to see how they emerge as a result of cultural paradigms that allow us or, even more alarmingly, encourage us, to work hard not to think about certain aspects of our interactions. Only by drawing our attention back, through realisation, can we explore and, in doing so, shift how we relate in these contexts.

My political manifesto

If I were to get involved in politics, it would be to:

– help draw up a new development plan for participative democracy, focussed on how the political landscape can better reflect a plurality of views, rather than tribal politics, and grow more inclusive, so people of different ages and cultural backgrounds get an opportunity to express their views;

– work to develop a basic charter for communications, so that how we talk to one another becomes a field of focus and we move beyond ‘tit for tat’ politics. Let good ideas, regardless of who they come from, contribute to the flourishing of society;

-promote and develop independence and responsibility through making sure that between elections, there are ongoing events and discussions, online and in meeting places, that provoke people into thinking about how they can exercise more responsibility over their own lives, and critically engage with the political process. This also involves moving away from blame and mudslinging, and thinking about what it takes, materially and culturally, to live well, to be an independent, critical thinker, to be self-responsible, to relate to one another, to foster the common good;

-focus on rural regeneration that is genuinely sustainable: this involves supporting initiatives that are smart, efficient, and that benefit local communities financially and educationally or through higher levels of training; it includes addressing the issues of rural infrastructure, including looking at ways of ensuring a far better roads structure that includes plans for cycle and walk ways, better public transport systems, a proper roll out of broadband to all including those most marginalised communities. It includes properly addressing issues of rural housing, sticking to planning laws (and making sure those laws are sensible) ensuring that there is a housing stock but that there is also a culture of responsibility so people take responsibility for their property – this, in turn, means looking at the relationship between property and lending, and scrutinising the attitudes of the banks. It includes access to quality health care, through the development of primary health care centres that are accessible and affordable, and through a good rural transport service and provision of care, or better still, support for carers that encourages maintaining and supporting family relationships. It includes conservation of the environment through scrutinising agricultural policy, and promoting and developing genuinely sustainable agricultural practices. It includes protection of natural heritage by making sure that natural and historical sites are not just monetised, but are actually respected through careful management of access (but this, too, needs to be balanced with the educational value of getting local people, especially the young, to understand and appreciate natural and historical heritage).

-exercise and promote freedom of expression and whistleblow when necessary;

However, I will not get involved in politics, because I’m unwilling to stand as a candidate in a culture that condones the abuse of those who would stand up independently, who are perfectly competent in the realm of problem solving and articulation, but who do not have a party machine to back them, and who are therefore actively prohibited from participation. This is true, of course, not just for me, but for many others who could otherwise contribute to the political landscape.