Category: The Thesis!

Directly related to my PhD thesis work and research

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 (www.tricycle.org) 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.

Advertisements

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…

View original post 237 more words

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.

Burning the hills, and deer democracy


Is there any point in contacting a radio show unless your view echoes that of a substantial sector of the population? What if you have a minority view that is, nevertheless, grounded in good empirical science? This is when things get interesting: you get trolled and berated, lampooned and virtually spat upon. What to do? Mostly, you shut up, because you get fed up, and depressed, and concerned about the safety and well-being of your immediate family. But sometimes the issues are so central to your own understanding of what is creating an increasing crisis in societies, here, and globally, that you decide to see if you can articulate it, without rancour or blame. Occasionally, you find your view is at the crest of an often tyrannously overwhelming wave of public feeling. Then you’re lauded for your bravery and honesty. Much more often, you prepare yourself for the inevitable, and sometimes damaging, flak.

 

Take the issue of ‘wild deer’ increasingly being blamed for entering and overgrazing agricultural land, for instance. They got a drubbing on the Joe Duffy show this week. There was little discussion of the rather interesting, and somewhat poignant, history of deer in Ireland (actually, there may have been discussion, but I became overwhelmed by depression at some point and turned the radio off). I did not hear any talk of species except a mention of Muntjac in reference to the the proposal to introduce the European Lynx: Muntjac are non-native; lynx are non-native (so said the caller), therefore introducing lynx was a bad idea. Hang on: lynx are historically native to Ireland, at least prehistorically. By contrast, there was much discussion of the damage they did to ‘our’ or, more often, ‘my’ land, and the monetary cost of the damage was mentioned frequently. So was the issue of responsibility. The farmer is responsible for his animals, so the argument went: why wasn’t the NPWS or Coilte responsible (for which I imagine one can read, financially liable) for the deer which must be, in some sense ‘theirs’ since they reside primarily on parks or forestry lands?

 

The answer is, of course, that wild animals do not belong to anyone, in the sense that farm animals do. If humans ‘own’ everything in a country (and the general consensus appears to be that this is the case: everything is either property, or a ‘resource’, including water, the surrounding seas, and even, one must imagine, for the purposes of allocating ‘responsibility’, the air) then humans must have laws that reflect how any ‘damaging’ aspect of their property’s activity is to be reined in, or compensated for.

 

Between listening to the radio, preparing the house for visitors, organising classes and doing all the other things one does to survive, I also came across references to the  burning of uplands in Ireland, a practice I recall was common enough on the heather moorlands of Scotland when I was a child, but something that, I’d thought, was generally seen as unproductive and, given how frequently dangerous fires get out of control, is now discouraged as ‘second best land management’ (Rackham). I was particularly provoked into thinking about humanity’s inconsistent thinking on the issue of responsibility when a news reporter described the second reason, after land management, for burning uplands as being fueled by the ‘primitive urge to light fires’, as though this was somehow excusable.

Let me make something quite clear: I have nothing against primitive drives, in principle. Sex is one. So, if we dig deep enough, is reciprocity. Both are deeply satisfying and potentially enriching. But primitive urges cannot always be acted on: sometimes, and especially if the urge is not reciprocated, we need to learn restraint.

Restraint is something of a paradox for people: on the one hand, we’ve managed to restrain ourselves enough to live in artificially dense communities, suppressing any primitive urge to make more space for ourselves at the expense of other members of our own species. On the other, as far as other species and ecosystems are concerned, we’ve shown little, if any restraint. This is largely because we see ourselves as being the ones who run the show (something I think is directly contraindicated by the longevity of the microorganisms that long preceded, and will long outlive us, and even by the species we like to  call ‘vermin’ or ‘invasive’ that manage to slot themselves into the niches we’ve vacated with sustained use of clubs, greed, roads, fences, noise pollution and fire. Many of our fellow species are considerably more flexible, more prolific, more tolerant and more enduring than we are).

However, if the story we tell ourselves about our mastery, our ‘god-given’ right to own and exploit all else as resource or property, were true, we would, surely, have an obligation to organise things to ensure their continuity, so we could continue to flourish and prosper. After all, we don’t just rely on the wild for the healthiest meat, the purest water, the clearest air, the finest biodiversity and the best experiences we can attain (although increasingly, a lack of access to these attainments must be replaced, and alcohol, drugs, and other acts of ‘consumerism’ do indeed numb discretion and provide temporary relief from the acknowledgement of their absence). We also depend on the resilience of systems and the graduation of the ‘solar flow’ that complex systems provide to allow all our technology and artifice to operate effectively. Sharp graduations, from tornadoes to sudden temperature drops to drought cause our human invented structures to buckle and collapse. This is not news. It’s well known, scientifically authenticated, empirical fact. But we choose to ignore it because it does not fit the story of mastery.

The most depressing thing about listening to the Joe Duffy show was not the call for culling, or the demand for responsibility. It was easy to appreciate the frustrations of the farmers who made the case that their livelihoods were threatened by the invasion. It was difficult to deny that a deer causes extensive damage to a vehicle if it is hit (hard to avoid the conclusion that the deer doesn’t benefit from the encounter either, but let’s leave that aside for now). What was really depressing was the lack of empathy or any attempt to look at things from a more objective perspective. We got no facts and figures on actual numbers, no details of the species involved, no review of the change, if any, in land use.

Cull, then, if you absolutely must (but use people who know how to kill humanely), and keep it to a minimum, until and unless you can do better research. Invest in research. Give the remaining deer somewhere to go, a let out clause. Somewhere undisturbed, and with clearances so they do not automatically seek to graze in neighbouring fields. Let them have some space, somewhere they can live and breed without causing a nuisance or being interfered with. Then do the research: learn about numbers, the history and movement patterns of each of the three species living here. The impact and extent of hybridisation. And disseminate the information, have workshops and discussions.

Oh, and when culling, how about considering distributing the meat to those who are most lacking in good nutrition – and who will not waste it. For minimal cost, and as an exercise in education and appreciation, why not consider having feasts in villages. Or special meals in prisons, or in homeless shelters.

Finally, consider reorganising how agriculture takes place, integrating routes or corridors into fields that deer and other migrating wild species can use. Culverts under roads need not be especially expensive, if the research into where to locate them has been properly conducted.

I talked about primitive urges earlier, and one final thing from Joe’s discussion stuck with me. Someone who had damaged their car by running into a deer said that deer ‘leap at the lights’. This seems unlikely. I used to go stalking with my father in Scotland and we had trouble even getting close enough for him to take a shot, let alone having them leap towards us for any reason. ‘Lamping’ is done, as far as I know, by driving around more or less in the dark and then visually ‘stunning’ the deer by shining a vast battery of headlamps directly at the animal. Blinded, they likely freeze long enough for someone to take a pot shot. The leap towards the lights is more likely to be a random attempt to escape than a counter attack, or evidence of attraction to light.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost touch with empathy for anything but ourselves (and even that is patchy) or for the animals we’ve ‘tamed’. Even they are liable to a kitch version of anthropomorphism – dressed up in human-looking clothes, accessorised, attributed human emotions.

The best farmers I know – the ones with the healthiest, most productive animals, the juciest fruit, the most succulent vegetables – are rarely rich. What they are is humane, and knowledgeable. There is knowledge in every rural community of Ireland, deep knowledge of the land, and the animals, domestic and wild, but it’s as counter-cultural, and as difficult to spot, as a thin eel wriggling upstream.

It’s unlikely that those with that kind of knowledge would venture to voice their concerns on Joe Duffy’s show. But those people are, in their own ways, more articulate, more in tune, and most importantly, more grounded in empirical knowledge, than any of the callers who demand yet more subsumation of the wild, that ‘it’ respect ‘our’ rules, without realising that, ultimately, we are utterly enmeshed in ‘it’.