Saturday, 27 June 2020

MORALITY, MONASTIC STEPS, AND MINDFULNESS

Two fascinating books have, thanks to the generosity of friends, come my way as I stood back from Wychwood Circle: How The World Thinks (Julian Baggini) and The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt). The first expands one’s horizon by looking at the vast array of alternative views of the world, from Japan to India and from enlightenment France to the Middle East. It feels all-encompassing and quite a tour de force, and it leaves you with a strong sense of the deep connections between philosophy and culture.

The second might best be approached via the chapter on ‘WEIRD morality’ which can shake your complacent, culturally conditioned approach to politics and religion.  Haidt pulls you up short – if your culture is typically ‘Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic’ – with the observation that there are more foundations for basing your morality than the common liberal one of avoiding harm to others but otherwise just getting on with your life.  In other cultures you might balance your ‘ethic of autonomy’ with an ‘ethic of community’ or even ‘an ethic of divinity’.

Moral foundations

Or you could re-examine the basis of your morality altogether by considering a range of foundational intuitive factors, ranging from the desire to avoid harm and to seek fairness (however defined); through the instinct to resist oppression;  to the goals of respect for loyalty, authority and, finally, ‘sanctity’ (or avoiding degrading ourselves or others).  Haidt examines all these foundations in fascinating detail before looking at their implications for politics and religion.

One of the earliest discussions at Wychwood Circle was based on Finding Happiness – Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, by Abbot Christopher Jamison.  Those monastic steps, it turned out, could be applied to any of us – that is, as long as we are as interested as the Abbot in what might be called an integrated ‘interior life’.  If we are, then we might find that we need to look at our ‘spiritual hygiene’ in the same way as, with our basic familiarity with modern medicine, we have been brought up to observe physical hygiene.

Freedom of spirit 

Jamison’s starting point is that the phrase “Blessed are the pure in heart” could be construed in the modern mind as [my form of words] ‘blessed are those who seek interior, and not just, exterior freedom’:  his argument is that happiness or fulfilment depend on choosing that interior freedom, that freedom of spirit. His belief is that the urge for that monastic wisdom is present in every ‘spiritually healthy adult’ in the form of ‘the contemplative urge, the desire to step back, be still and look inwards, the desire to find sanctuary’.

The outline of the book, as some of us will recall, is the Eight Thoughts of that early ‘desert father’ John Cassian (b 360 AD), soon to be taken up by St Benedict and others.  The purpose of examining these Thoughts – beginning with ‘Acedia’, or spiritual laziness or apathy, and going on to the better-known ‘deadly sins’ of gluttony, vanity, lust etc – is to increase self-awareness.  Cassian would urge us, in this way, to ‘freely choose purity of heart at every moment of the day’, says Jamison.

The way to do that as a monk may be to pray, which includes contemplation and reflective reading;  some in 2020 may be more likely to turn to meditation and some specifically to mindfulness meditation.  One meditation textbook describes how our unconscious conditioning ‘can be purified by the illuminating power of mindfulness’. A definition of mindfulness might be the practice of cultivating ‘spacious, appreciative awareness’ and in 2016 we were fortunate to have the guru of British mindfulness, Mark Williams, to speak to a packed village hall, followed in 2019 by author and trainer Tim Stead.  Mindfulness meditation helps us to get to know our minds, beginning by noticing our thoughts and sensations coming and going and deciding whether we want them to define us, choosing to respond rather than react, and so on.  I imagine Cassian would have been happy with that.

Not doing harm to others? 

Our attitudes are shaped by our thoughts: as the Buddha said, ‘what we incline the mind towards is what the mind becomes’.  Jamison stresses that self-awareness is not just about a private world of introspection, but ‘attentiveness to my way of relating to people and things’ and this brings us again to Jonathan Haidt’s eye-opening and seminal book on moral psychology and its interface with religion and politics.  Our interaction with the world includes our attitudes as well as our actions, says Jamison, an approach which denies the belief (which Haidt emphatically challenges) that ‘something is good so long as it does no harm to others’. 

My inner world can do harm as well as good, to me as well as to others.  The examined life (to misquote Socrates) might indeed make life far more worth living.  And then we might better understand others too.


Post by David Soward 

Monday, 16 March 2020

News from the Planning Meeting

Thank you to all those who took the trouble to join us for this.

It was agreed that the current format of meeting monthly, usually on second Sundays at 7.00 pm in Milton library or village hall, was a good pattern;  and we discussed the sorts of topics and speakers that we would appreciate.

I'll apply myself to devising a programme and will contact members (and post details here) as it takes shape.

Next month is of course Easter, and so our next meeting (pestilence permitting) will be on May 10th -- book the date!

Thursday, 27 February 2020

March meeting

Many thanks ..

.. to David Soward, who has been convening the Circle for several years now.  David stepped back at the end of 2019, and John Partington has agreed to take on the role.

The Circle consists, of course, of its attenders – John is only the co-ordinator.  Be sure to come to our next meeting (7.00 pm on Sunday 8 March in Milton Village Hall) to share opinions and ideas about our programme in 2020 and beyond!

Friday, 29 November 2019

WHY IS CHRISTIANITY FAILING?


MARK VERNON, whose book A Secret History of Christianity came out earlier this year, has been touring the country with talks and discussions in recent months. His interest recently has evolved around Owen Barfield and the concept of 'participation' in the evolution of consciousness - as we heard last time he visited us.  Mark joins Wychwood Circle on December 8th to talk about 'Why is Christianity failing?' A clue to his answer may lie in the quotation which a longer title might have alluded to - namely Karl Rahner's words: 'The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.' 

Join us at Milton Village Hall on Sunday, December 8th at 7pm - or earlier for refreshments.  Contributions (£3-5) towards the costs of speaker and hall will be invited. 


Sunday, 27 October 2019

'TO BE A PILGRIM'? A NON-BELIEVER'S WALK TO JERUSALEM

MENTAL HEALTH, IMAGINATION AND SPIRITUALITY

Anyone interested in mental health as well as spirituality may have spotted some interesting speakers at Wychwood Circle this autumn.  After mindfulness in September, this Sunday, November 3rd, we have author Guy Stagg who has suffered with serious mental illness and who, as a non-believer, decided to undertake the 5,500km ‘pilgrimage’ from Canterbury to Jerusalem:  he hiked on foot, alone, on ancient paths and busy routes, relying on the generosity of strangers all the way.  The result is ‘The Crossway’ (Picador 2018), which mixes travel and memoir and where Guy Stagg (guystagg.co.uk) tells of his walk towards recovery and – a big question for us – ‘asks whether religion can still have meaning for those without faith’.

You can see Guy in interviews and conversations here and here
Join us at Wychwood Library at 7pm on November 3rd. 


After over 7 years of regular monthly meetings Wychwood Circle will take a break in 2020 but before that we have a third visit from Dr Mark Vernon, a
psychotherapist and the author of  ‘How to be an Agnostic’, ‘Wellbeing’, and, just published, ‘A Secret History of Christianity’.  His new book is largely about Owen Barfield – fellow Inkling and friend of JR Tolkien and C S Lewis – and focuses on the importance of imagination within the evolution of consciousness over the centuries, and thereby to the place of poetry as well as spirituality in a fully-rounded appreciation of the world.  His critique of contemporary Christianity is that it has lost touch with the mysticism which should be at its centre.  The new book has just been endorsed by WPF Therapy in London (where Mark trained as a psychotherapist) as their October 'book of the month' (click on the link from the book title above). 
Join us on December 8th, 7pm at the Village Hall.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

AWARENESS, COMPASSION, EASE OF BEING

Can Mindfulness be a form of spirituality for the non-religious?


Tim Stead has gone from engineering to being a vicar at what was once C S Lewis' church at Headington Quarry, Oxford, to being a mindfulness teacher on the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course at the famous Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

One of the founders of that Centre and
the man who, some might say, 'wrote the book' on mindfulness (subtitled 'Finding Peace in a Frantic World') was a previous guest speaker of Wychwood Circle, in 2016 at Milton Village Hall: Mark Williams. Professor Williams wrote the Foreword to Tim Stead's book Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (2016), with the recommendation:
'You can read this book in a day; but take it to heart, and it will last a lifetime.'
Since then Tim has left the employment of the Church of England and set up as a freelance teacher and spiritual guide. His more recent book is called See, Love, Be and has the subtitle quoted in the heading above. You can read all about it on Tim's website. As he says there, his main interest is:
'... what might be called Mindful Living, i.e. actually living it all out.  How do we live a life marked by awareness (SEE), compassion (LOVE) and ease of being (BE) in this modern (in my case urban) world? 
Practising some form of meditation will be part of it but we are not here to become good meditators but good humans.  And there are many facets to being a good human with all its shades of light and dark all of which are equally valued parts of the picture. 
Mindful Living will be about how we spend our time, what food we eat and how we travel as well as our engagement with the rest of humanity and the rest of nature.  I am interested in it all.'
We look forward to his exploration of the topic agreed for his visit to the Wychwoods, namely how mindfulness might fall into that gap between conventional religion and modern spirituality.  His talk will include some opportunities to practise and to discuss as well as an open forum for questions and answers.  


Join us on Sunday, September 8th, at the Village Hall (Shipton Road, Milton under Wychwood) for a 7pm start - refreshments served from 6.40pm.  Retiring collection.