Tag Archives: Buddhism

Search terms: some quick hits

From time to time, it’s interesting to see how people arrive at my site – if it’s not from a Facebook link, it’s often from a search term. Here are some comments on some of the quirkier ones.

“quakerisms”

The plural here is curiously apt. Although it’s not standard usage at the moment, perhaps it should be. There are many words we can use to describe the varieties of Quakerism found in the world today: unprogrammed, semi-programmed, programmed; conservative, evangelical, quietest; liberal, liberal-Liberal, not actually liberal; Christian, rooted in Christianity, Christocentic, universalist, hypenated; pluralist, inclusive, diverse, exclusive, elitist; spiritual, humanist, religious; theist, atheist, non-theist, agnostic, gnostic; honest, transparent, open, silent, unknown, secret; clear, sure, uncertain, exploring, vague, confused, determined, open-minded… and maybe all of these at once. How many Quakerisms are there?

“quaker-friends church bloggers 2014”

I guess this person might have been looking for the Quaker Alphabet Bloggers, or perhaps they were just looking for Quaker or Friends Church bloggers in general. There are plenty of them about!

“what does buddha look like”

It was the tense of this query which caught my attention. This isn’t, apparently, a search for information about the historical figure known as the Buddha, but a question about what the Buddha looks like today. This might be about the way the Buddha is depicted in art today, but perhaps it’s a more mystical question. Would you recognise a Buddha if you met one? Would a Buddha introduce themselves as such, or is it more like meeting an angel, an experience you only understand in retrospect?

“wittgenstein space”

I’ve no idea what this searcher was seeking. On first reading, it sounds like a sci-fi premise: Wittgenstein in Space! He analyses the grammar of scientific spaceship jargon! He meets a race of aliens who claim to have a private language! He threatens crewmate Karl Popper with laser-poker!

However, I did once give a paper in which I used Wittgensteinian ideas to explore the ways that we interact with space, specifically with the space inside a Skyspace. If you’re interested, you can listen to the whole piece at the Go Inside To Greet The Light website. It’s officially called ‘wordless thought’, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s really about!

“pagan brigid upg”

UPG, or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, is knowledge gained about a deity through a personal practice – meditation, prayer, divination, or similar. I’m fascinated by the processes and vocabulary which are growing up in the Pagan community around this, and especially by how they compare to Quaker processes for seeking and agreeing on ‘the will of God for us now’, but I haven’t yet written at length about them. Nor do I have particular UPG of my own about Brigid; in fact, I don’t especially feel the need of it, and one of the reasons I was drawn to Brigid in the early days of my Pagan exploration was that there’s enough material on her that it even appeared – a few mentions here and there – in my local library. For reviews of books and other resources about Brigid, I heartily recommend Brigit’s Sparkling Flame.

“brigid and the fox”

I see the confusion here! The Fox in my blog title refers to George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement. The story this search is looking for is about Brigid and an actual fox, or in some tellings a wolf: there’s a very short version here and a much longer one here. A charming tale about her power over nature, even if the fox does (usually) run away back to the woods at the end!

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A is for Appropriation

An ethical issue which keeps appearing in my work is about appropriation: the taking of an object, word, or practice by a cultural group who did not create it. There are many areas of life in which appropriation is possible – cultural appropriate, artistic appropriation, musical appropriation – but I am mainly concerned about religious appropriation. When I wrote about appropriation before, I was writing from my perspective as a member of the Neo-Pagan community; now I want to talk about some of the complex situations I have considered since.

There are some cases which, I think, are widely agreed to be appropriation among those who agree that it exists. (There are, of course, people who don’t think that it exists as a concept, or who insist on distinguishing between appropriation and misappropriation, not accepting that it is all morally problematic. I am not discussing these perspectives in this post because I think that the facts that a) ideas move between cultures and b) sometimes the use of one culture’s idea by another culture is harmful to the first culture have been demonstrated elsewhere, including by evidence which I provided/linked to in my previous post.) For example, the wearing of ‘Native American headdresses’, a very specific piece of ritual kit used by some, and only some, Native American groups, as fashion accessories, obviously degrades and damages Native American cultures, not least by lumping them all together and, frequently, treating them as historical rather than owned and practised by living people.

One of the aspects of that case is the power imbalance between the Native American groups involved and the white Americans who are wearing headdresses as a fashion. The specific history of relations between these two cultures in that place has irrevocably shaped any cultural interchange which happens now. In other cases, the use of cultural material by another group is accepted, even encouraged, by the people from whom it is taken, and this kind of sharing can be advantageous: although it could be interpreted in other ways, recent reports about the popularity of Korean cultural products, especially music and TV shows, in China could be read as this kind of story (especially if it is the case that Korea’s cultural popularity has been instrumental in producing a trade deal which is advantageous for Korea). The popularity of some American cultural products worldwide is clearly good for the USA; but MacDonald’s channels money in a way that the worldwide sale of dream catchers, an originally Ojibwe sacred item which has been taken up, made and sold by many other people, both Native and non-Native, American and non-American, as a ‘New Age’ fashion accessory.

In religious appropriation, then, what are we talking about? Sometimes it will be the same thing: objects, food, music. Sometimes images appear in inappropriate places: Buddha as a tattoo, Kali on a toilet seat. Sometimes it will be practices: yoga might be the classic example of this. Sometimes words, ideas, or stories move between cultures: terms like ‘karma’, originally part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, now circulate freely and detached from their context in Western discourse. The latter is especially a problem if, like me, you think that  the meaning of words is derived from their use in particular contexts. (A blog post later this year will deal with this idea in more detail.) A pattern I observe among Quakers is a push to use words which prove how inclusive we are. Using ‘Allah’, for example, in a list of names of God alongside Spirit, Light, Christ, and maybe some from other cultures (Inner Buddha Nature, Tao, and Krishna all appear in real examples) probably does not so much reflect the presence of Muslim-Quaker dual belongers in the community (although there are a few around) as it reflects a desire to demonstrate willingness to respect the religion of a group much denigrated in British mass media at present. The desire comes from a place of goodwill; but whether a Muslim, or even an Arabic-speaking Christian who might also use the word ‘Allah’, would really agree that it belonged in that list is another question.

Christians have some specific tangles around this issue. Setting aside the appropriation from other cultures, people seeking resources for a change to their tradition often go back and look for forgotten materials in their own history to appropriate for new purposes. This can be very effective – Christian feminist work on medieval women mystics might be an example – although there is still a moral dimension to ensuring that the past is represented as accurately as possible. However, because the Christian past includes material which is Jewish, there is also the complexity of interactions between the cultures. Christian persecution of Jews, Christian failures to recognise how Judaism has changed since the time of Jesus, and Christian cultural power in many of the places where Jews now live are all features of this landscape. For those working in Christian traditions and seeking to interpret the Bible now, the Jewish context of the documents is vitally important – but some apparently obvious ways to use this are problematic appropriations. For example, Christians holding Seders – read about this from a Jewish, interfaith family, Lutheran, or Anglican perspective.

What should we do about appropriation? I think we need to be aware of it, to name it and discuss it both within our religious communities and when relevant topics come up in the course of interfaith work. When considering whether to use material from another religion, whether it’s a single word or a book or a practice, we need to ask questions like: What do I stand to gain? What is my real motive – showing respect for the tradition, desire for the exotic, proving the superiority of my understanding? If I do this, what impression will I give to those who see and hear me? What hidden lesson might I be teaching alongside the message I intend to impart? What potential for damage to people and the relationships between people does this have?

Personal spiritual practices

There’s been some discussion recently on the Quaker Renewal Facebook group about spiritual practices beyond Meeting for Worship. It’s focussed a bit on spiritual direction, of which I have no experience, but knowing that I find such accounts from other people interesting I thought I would share with you some of my spiritual practices – as they are at the moment; my experience is that these things can, do, and need to shift and change through time.

My core communal spiritual practice is Meeting for Worship, followed by Meeting for Worship for Business (which includes committee meetings, Meetings for Clearness, and other related Quaker processes). I’m also happy to participate in a variety of Neo-Pagan rituals, Buddhist and other meditation or chanting groups, Bible study, church services, other Quaker practices like Appleseed or Experiment with Light, and so forth, but these tend to come and go as the opportunity arises rather than being core to my practices – I enjoy them but I don’t particularly miss them if I don’t go.

Over the past year or so, my core solitary spiritual practice has been a short period of meditation in the morning – typically ten or fifteen minutes, using a handy timer on my phone. I use this for all sorts of things. Often, it will be a recognisably Pagan, often Druid, visualisation meditation – visiting my Sacred Grove in the inner world, for example, or exploring a landscape or symbolic image. At other times, I might use a set of words, such as a Pagan chant, song from Taize, or Buddhist mantra. Sometimes I hold a focus object which is significant to me at the time – a leaf, a stone, an ornament. Sometimes I do Experiment with Light, sometimes I focus on the breath or on listening, and sometimes I just lie there. This practice is core in the sense that I miss it if I don’t do it – it’s not always practical, but it does seem to be beneficial when I can manage it. It’s my practice, since it’s warm and comfortable, to do my meditation in the morning before I get out of bed. This doesn’t work if I’ve been woken by an alarm, as I’ll just go back to sleep, but if I’ve woken naturally because I’ve slept enough it’s in fact the time when my mind is most alert and I am least likely to drift off. This is clearly a quirk of biology and YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I have, at other times, tried other practices. Sometimes I have found the need to have more tactile stuff going on in order to keep my mind on the practice – at the moment, a meditation bell set to ring every three minutes or so during the time is enough, but I have used music, poetry, incense, candles, lectio divina, various divination systems (such as runes, ogham, and oracle cards), and movement, at different times. I find Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, John Pritchard’s book How to Pray: A Practical Handbook and Ginny Wall’s book Deepening the Life of the Spirit: Resources for Spiritual Practice to be useful, and go back to them when I feel stuck, although as you may have gathered from the rest of this post I also find inspiration in a lot of other places.

My other core practice, although it’s not as regular as morning meditation and weekly Meeting for Worship, is being outdoors. This can be walks in the countryside, strolls in the park, gardening, feeding the birds, tree-hugging, etc. It’s much more free-form, except when something arises from my meditation or my OBOD course which prompts me to something specific, but no less important for that.

Branches, mostly of oak, criss-cross the image, against a grey sky.

Tree image from a recent walk.

Not to possess anything which should belong to others.

The Second Mindfulness Training says, among other things, that “I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others…”

Not stealing is, at least, reasonably obvious – if I take someone else’s belongings, I usually know, and if I do it by accident it generally becomes obvious once it’s drawn to my attention. Not possessing anything which should belong to others, though, gets trickier. Sometimes I do know that something in my possession should belong to someone else – if my grandmother gives me something which is actually my father’s, for example, I haven’t stolen it but it should belong to him, not me.

In broader terms, though, what of mine should belong to others? What do I have which would be more use to someone else, or improve their life more than it does mine? Do I have a right to keep useful things in storage for when I want them, or should I pass them on and rely on finding another when I need one? With books, I find it fairly easy to conceptualise the second-hand market as a kind of library; I keep books to which I refer, or which I think I’ll read or consult again, and pass on those where I currently foresee no use for them in my life, reasoning that if the need does occur I’ll buy or borrow another copy. A handful of very rare books might stump this system, and I do keep a few just for being unusual, but my experience so far has been that this works (and that it’s actually very rare that I want a book I passed on – Stig of the Dump is the only example which comes to mind over perhaps ten years of running my book collection like this).

Somehow, I haven’t managed to conceptualise other things like this. My kitchenware, for example, is currently sitting unused in boxes in a spare room. I’m sure it could be useful to other people; but I’m keeping it, as a collection, planning to one day use it again myself.

Numbers as Toxins: living qualitatively not quantitatively

A line in the last of the Five Mindfulness Trainings says, “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” I discuss these every month with Stephanie, whose thoughts on the process you can read on her blog, and we quite often end up discussing this line. What counts as a toxin?

Previously, we have identified certain kinds of always-negative talk about people as a problem (the thing where you complain about a colleague or a child you volunteer with and never have anything good to say about them, for example), and some kinds of celebrity talk and advertising (film posters which only tell you which actors appear and not anything about the plot, or even the genre, of the movie, for example), and talk about weight and diet which adds moralising to actually-neutral choices (‘Cake?’ ‘Oh, I shouldn’t…’ ‘I’ll be naughty…’/ ‘You’re vegan and teetotal? Do you have any vices left?’ and so forth).

More broadly, I am considering the possibility that living life by numbers is a toxin. I don’t mean that numbers are themselves toxic, they’re a useful tool for measuring things if often arbitrary; but rather that, in quantifying everything, we can get trapped in living by the numbers – in particular, trying to reach a certain number of something – rather than appreciating the quality. I am therefore experimenting with ignoring any numbers and making judgements on other grounds.

An obvious example is my body. I don’t know what I weigh, and I don’t much care; I’m not worried about how much body I have, but rather I want to be comfortable in it. I don’t count calories or weight-watchers points or anything else. I have cake if I want it and not if I don’t. I try not to clock-watch for meals; I eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not. (Actually, I happen to live in a body which is quite predictable in this regard, and I can tell friends when I’m likely to want to eat and plan to meet them for a meal then, which is handy. I know that not everyone can do this.) I let doctors take my blood pressure but I make no attempt to know what it is – when it’s too low I get dizzy and that tells me what I need to know without worrying about a number.

Similarly, I have abandoned alarm clocks for all but the most important occasions or really unusually early starts. I have the good fortune to live a life in which this is easy, and a very predictable body which wakes at much the same time every day – and a fairly socially acceptable one, to boot. (Socially acceptable among workers and the middle-aged, that is, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a university hall of residence with my bed-at-9pm up-at-7am thing.) I know that I need more sleep than much of my peer group, but I am trying to give up counting it in hours. Who cares? I need what I need, and I’ll wake up when I’ve slept enough.

I do get sucked into job hunting by the numbers, sometimes. If there are x applicants for every job, I should get an interview every y applications, and they interview z people, so I need this many interviews to get a job… Only b in c people with such-and-such a qualification get this-or-that kind of work, so my chances are… This is completely foolish, of course, job hunting and interviewing don’t really work this way anyway. I am looking for the right job for me, and employers are looking for the right candidate for them, and the number of previous applications I have done affects this not at all. It’s tempting, though, because when I’m job hunting the whole exercise seems terrifying and humiliating and it is mostly if not completely outside my control. Trying to predict the outcome is a way of trying to assert a tiny amount of control and to assure myself that the process is not an endless torture but will, eventually, have an outcome.

Another area in which I can sometimes be trapped by the numbers is money. Money is a useful number, and I can’t see a way to give it up entirely. (Likewise, I think I will always need to start with numbers when buying shoes, for example, and baking cakes – although I reject the idea that you need to use numbers for bread dough, which can be done by feel.) However, I think it’s possible to get trapped into tiny numbers, worrying about pennies when spending hundreds of pounds. I try to make sure things are within a reasonable price range – this should be less than £5, that should be less than £50 – but to let myself shop for ethics and convenience within that range. This approach might not work for everyone. The advantage for me is that I can let many choices be made for quality instead – I can buy organic vegetables, I can take a bus when I need to and not worry about it – and because I have reasonably cheap vices, and a reasonable income, I don’t need to get bogged down in justifying every choice to my mean-angry-thrifty internal voice who objects to spending anything ever.

Other areas of life I have identified as ruled by numbers include time management, word counts for writing, and everything which involves making a list on a computer (to-do lists, wish lists, X Things You’ve Never Believe/Remember/Care About lists). I am still debating the extent to which these numbers are useful tools and to what extent they create a tyranny of targets.