Archive for March, 2021

Cultural Ecology of Spirituality

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

“Imagination is fine, so long as we know that we are engaging in it. Problems only arise when we mistake our imagination for reality. Religions start off with imagining. For example, true believing Christians imagine that God exists, that Jesus saves, that sins can be washed away, that heaven awaits after death.  I like how Taoism ends with imagining….  imagination fills the gap between what we can comprehend and what is real”. Brian Hines

1 A New Spiritual Awakening

Fig 1 

“A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity,” 

John Gray writes. Illustration by Seb Agrest

During the modern age, reason became valued over faith, tradition, and revelation. Industrialized society replaced agricultural societies and the old ways of relating to seasons and cycles (Fig 1). Furthermore, the growing predominance of a global, mechanized worldview, a collective sense of the sacred, was severed and replaced with an insatiable drive for scientific progress and material prosperity without any sense of limits or responsibility.  As religious affiliation decreases in the West, there are accompanying declines in church membership, participation in religious activities, and a lack of sustainability in congregations.  Despite these declines, interest in, and practice of spirituality are growing across many diverse populations. Spiritual teachers abound, including both those grounded in religious traditions and those identifying as spiritually independent.  This is the response to a growing movement of people seeking spiritual deepening. According to Diana Butler Bass the trend is clear: “Traditional forms of faith are being replaced by a plethora of new spiritual, ethical, and nonreligious choices. If it is not the end of religion, it certainly seems to be the end of what was conventionally understood to be American religion.” Butler Bass has articulated the critical need for religious adaptation in today’s cultural milieu. In her 2012 book ‘Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening’, Butler Bass discusses the radical shift currently underway and suggests that a changing American Christianity may be part of “forming the contours of a new kind of faith beyond conventional religious boundaries.” Butler Bass’ work also points to the ways in which religious and spiritual change is part of a larger transformation: “When a spiritual and religious upheaval and transformation twins with political and cultural upheaval, it often results in what we call periods of awakening: these times in which American history actually changes. And an awakening is not just like a revival meeting, where individuals might get changed; but instead, an awakening is a time when American society, as a whole, is transformed.”  What is clear is that this is a time when people are starting to think globally about how their spiritual lives can accommodate climate change.  

A Replacement for Religion lays out how we might absorb the best lessons of religion, update them for our times and incorporate them into our daily lives: it tries to rescue some of what remains wise and useful from religion, which for many, no longer seems quite true.

The best lesson to take from religion is that being human is to seek a higher purpose outside oneself. In particular, people need a socioecological framework for community-building to find meaning, belonging and identity,  The basic problem of human survival now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just an endless collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of duality cannot continue?  A nondual ecological culture to manage Earth’s bounty sustainably is required to address an ecological crisis.  An ecological structure is necessary within which people are able to  participate in something vast, consequential and interlocking.  In this connection, the primary aim of education at all levels should be to demonstrate how civic interactions based on trust are correlated with the neighbourly virtues of charitable giving, volunteerism and altruism. An understanding of the relationships between culture and ecology should be a mandatory outcome of education in order to make sense of life’s mysteries. 

At a personal level the search for transcendence is integral to this human experience.  Practically it means adopting a pedagogy for building social capital within individuals to render intelligible and tolerable existential facts about human life, such as suffering and death. With respect to these educational challenges, people, identifying broadly as spiritual seekers, hunger for opportunities to practice and develop their inner lives and connect with the transcendent.  This is why spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human culture.  Contemporary life is calling for the next iteration of the world’s profound religious heritage, as evidenced by the decline in religious participation and the increased opportunities for spiritual seeking.  An organizational culture is an important element for this kind of communal spiritual growth. Also, a cultural organisation is required to bring communities together and provide a space, a setting and a pedagogy for individuals to serve people they otherwise would not connect with  (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A Zen/Taoist cultural organisation to replace religion.

2  Zen/Taoism as a cultural organisation

Many modern problems are one way or the other caused by too many people engaging in too many activities too quickly.  Arrogance and ego mixed with numerous incompatible activities have made global warming and climate change a global threat that is becoming unmanageable. Zen Buddhism offers a solution to advance sustainability. The Zen solution is to become more mindful and selective in daily activity. In this way, one can find more time for self-examination and reflective thought. It is a Zen Buddhist understanding that by grasping the “twist and turn” of unpredictable life, one will have the opportunity to find and apply the Buddha mind.

The Buddha mind is not a special kind of mind, but it has a special effect to make a person realize the importance of every existing thing and its mutual relationships. The Zen idea of interconnectedness helps to neutralize the feelings of hatred, prejudice, pride, disappointment, anxiety, and joy into a well balanced perspective.  This in turn enables one to perceive and to live in the complete state of harmonious existence within Earth’s ecosystem.  Zen as practice is really about re-animating our consciousness. This is how Thomas Berry evocatively describes the vlsionary outcome of Zen thinking:   

“The thousandfold voices of the natural world suddenly became inaudible  to the human. The mountains and rivers and the wind and the sea all  became mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no  longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply  so many board feet of lumber to be “harvested” as objects to be used for 

human benefit. Animals were no longer the companions of humans in the  single community of existence”.  

Regarding Zen and scientific thinking, Rosan Yoshida Roshi promotes the role of Zen as an overarching ethical guideline for the behavior of scientists as well as the consumers of science. He argues the importance of establishing and adhering to such a guideline and states that Zen is particularly suitable to promote it. In this context, science is not value-free and bias-free.  It is a human enterprise which is extremely vulnerable to our tendency to prioritize the demands from me-ism and selfishness manifested as utilitarianism, materialism, militarism, and money-ism. Yoshida states that these tendencies are destructive and threaten the entire human ecosystem.  Zen teachings can counteract or mitigate these tendencies because it emphasizes collective wholeness as its ultimate goal and presents remedies for lessening these egocentric demands.

Tao (also pronounced Dao) is the Chinese word for “The Way”  is a philosophical practice dating back to 6th Century BCE. Tao Te Ching, supposedly authored by Laozi, is the book attributed to Taoist traditions. Taoism arose in a period of war for China, in which people began to look towards nature for peace in order to get away from the chaotic human to human violence. Taoism focuses on the Tao as the “ultimate ordering principle of nature which we should incorporate into our individual and social lives”. Taoist ethics are concerned less with doing good acts than becoming a good person who lives in harmony with all things and people.  The unmistakable teaching of the Tao Te Ching is that humans are indeed capable of intervening in life’s events, but the evidence of life, which humans constantly ignore, is that such intervention is destructive to all involved, and that we therefore have a moral duty to refrain from taking such actions.  Taoist ethics are inseparable from Taoist spirituality, both contain the same ideas.  If Taoists want to live well they should take all their decisions in the context of the Tao, trying to see what will fit best with the natural order of things.  Taoists thus always do what is required by events and their context, but they only do what is required, no more.  Lao Tsz’s Tao Te Ching says: 

“It is the way of Tao to offer where there is a great abundance and to supplement where there is deficiency. This is not so with men’s way. He takes away from those who have not enough to serve the powerful and the rich. Who could use one’s superabundance to help those in need? Only the man in possession of Tao.”

Taoism is an indigenous Chinese cultural tradition which scientists have found resonates with certain aspects of the essence of modern science and responds to modern social and environmental issues. For example, Raymond J. Barnett finds a surprising degree of similarity between Taoism and biological science in their views on death, cyclicity, the place of humans in the universe and the complementary interactions of dichotomous thinking, where everything is an either-or situation i.e. good and bad, right and wrong, but nothing in the middle. The use of the dichotomous Taoist terms yin and yang is similar to the way scientists describe the behavior of subatomic particles. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony.  Yin and yang are the ultimate points of reference for each other. Like the positive and negative poles of a magnet create a magnetic field and magnetic force between them, Yin and Yang form the reference points between which the movements and interactions of life occur. Our lives are a combination of the physical substances of our body that come from the earth (yin), and the energy of the light (harnessed through photosynthesis) coming from the sun (yang). Just as the interplay between positive and negative charges of subatomic particles drives chemical reactions, the interplay between yin and yang drive the happenings and animation of our lives. One can say some things about atomic particles, but only if one realizes that what is said is a statement of statistical probability and that a certain modicum of uncertainty is unavoidable. To take a physiological example, the autonomic nervous system both the sympathetic and parasympathetic subsystems, like the yin and yang, affect most organs. The state of an organ is not a function of one system being totally “off” and the other totally “on.” Rather, the health of an organ depends on the balance between the activities of both systems, with each able to change its input and alter the balance. This is a restatement of the biological principle of homeostasis which maintains an organism in equilibrium with its environment.  The pioneer researcher Joseph Needham contended that Daoist thought is basic to Chinese science and technology.

So, Zen is a practical approach to spirituality where the focus is in the moment, on the process not the outcome, quieting the mind and within that having some ‘oneness’ with the process/activity in question.  Taoism on the other hand, is a complementary philosophy, which is all about being at one with the Tao i.e. the way through nature and the universe.  It is about resisting the urge to limit or define things, but instead, accepting things as they are and moving on.  Therefore, Zen/Taoist thinking can be adopted for resacralization; to return spiritual meanings to public sectors of social life such as politics, the arts, science and the body.  It is an argument against the removal of spiritual meanings from public life.  In Zen and Taoist combined thinking, arts imagination and scientific reason merge to become a holistic aspect of the human educational  experience.  It is in this context that the arts are essential and critical  to our planetary survival.  In particular, we need to apply arts thinking to explain sustainability.   

3  Imagination in place

…once upon a time our society was rich in stories. They united us and helped us understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. In this time of global crisis and transition – of mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity and climate change – it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is inspiring stories, rather than facts and pie-charts, that have the power to animate us and bring us together to change the worldAlex Evans.

Imagination is the ability to think of new ideas and form images or pictures in the mind. Therefore it is the faculty that enables us to tell stories, write novels, to visualize and envisage, and also to picture the possibility that something good or bad might happen in the future. Our ability to create images not available to the sensory system, is arguably our greatest faculty for evolving human consciousness. In order to transform ourselves and our world, we need to be able to leap out of the familiar and into the unknown. The first step in doing this is to imagine a future different from the past, a self-sense different from the one we have now.  New myths about our place in Earth’s ecosystems are required. 

We are often called upon to imagine how a positive vision of the future might be realized, continually updating our guiding myths and stories about ourselves, our societies and the wider world.  Art is necessary for science to participate in creating these positive visions because creativity involves imagination, and imagination is visualization.  In this respect, the ability to visualize and imagine certain processes is important to solving scientific problems.  One such myth is ‘The Lorax’, a children’s book written by Dr. Seuss and first published in 1971.  It chronicles the plight of the environment and the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees”.  Befriending trees is nowa priority to reach the zero carbon targets of 2050.

Duality is the cause of a rigid polarization of life’s dimensions. We have distorted reality by splitting our world into opposites such as secular and sacred female and male, body and spirit, emotion and reason, and then we assign inferior or superior status to each. The artistic imagination is the way to the deepest realities because it approaches life in its wholeness. Scientific reason, on the other hand, abstracts from life in order to formulate clear and manageable concepts. Therefore imagination is not an inferior human capacity. It is the basis of creativity and therefore is a fundamental way of knowing and experiencing reality. 

Imagination is the function of the mind that we call mental activity. Fantasy and scientific conceptualization are both activities of imagining. Memory and hallucinations are also activities of imagining. In modern terms, the central nervous system’s biological activity of recognizing and identifying any aspect of our peripheral nervous system is the psychological activity of imagination. There is no “red rose” except that by our imagination we have designated “red” and “rose.” 

The central psychological activity of imagination has been one of the main features of Zen and Taoism for over two millennia and the notion of imagination has played an important role in their history.  Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi, also called the Daodejing, or The Way and Its Power, has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, as something imaginative, ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. 

Daoist art reflects the broad time span and the diverse regions, constituencies, and practices of its creators. The artists commissioned professionals, but also leading Daoist masters, adepts, scholar-amateurs, and even emperors working in written, painted, sewn, sculpted, or modeled media, created an astonishingly eclectic body of works ranging from sublime evocations of cosmic principles to elaborate visions of immortal realms and paradises as well as visualizations of the Daoist pantheon, medicinal charts, and ritual implements.  Zen/Taoist arts are cultural landmarks ranging  from an ornamental tree or shrub, a landscape to buildings or and objects that possess a special cultural significance for a group of people, and more often than not, for the whole of humankind as well. As a result, they have usually come to stand as an iconic representation of certain concepts, ideals, cultures, historical events, beliefs, etc., and in most cases have come to be considered a part of the common cultural heritage of humanity, standing as masterpieces of humanity’s creative genius. They teach us that it is possible to express great beauty and convey powerful messages through simplification.  Zen may not verbalize “amplification through simplification,” but you can see this idea everywhere in the Zen arts. There is a style of Japanese painting called the “one-corner” style, for example, which goes back some 800 years and is derived from the concepts of wabi and sabi. Paintings in this style are very simple and contain much empty space (Fig 3 ). You may have a painting depicting a large ocean scene and empty sky, for example. In the corner, there is a small, old fishing canoe, hardly visible. It’s the smallness and placement of the canoe that give vastness to the ocean and evoke a feeling of calm and an empathy for the aloneness the fisherman faces. Such visuals have few elements yet can be profoundly evocative.  Art is just an imitation of imitation. A painting is just an imitation of nature, which is also just an imitation of reality.   For Aristotle, all kinds of art do not aim to represent reality as it is, it endeavors to provide a version of what might be or the myriad possibilities of imagining reality.

Fig 3 A 12th-century Song Dynasty painting entitled ‘Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one’.  

This is artistic evidence of the way these three imaginative philosophies were mixed over time, and often believed to be fully compatible.

Spirituality is captured by the Australian artist J,J. Hilder without reference to an origin in Daoism (Fig  4 ). Debi Riley claims everyone can express this kind of creativity providing they have simplification in mind.

Fig 4  Dry Lagoon, J J Hilder (Australia, 1911)

Fig 5

The object of Zen rock gardens is to provide a calm and harmonious environment for contemplation (Fig 5)..  The aim is not to represent the appearance of things but their inward significance.  Just as Japanese landscape paintings often depict subjects that exist only in the imagination so, in reverse, Zen landscapes are real places only in the sense that they exist to promote the imagination.  A Zen garden, then, whatever its meaning, fulfils the three principles of Zen thought in art and architecture: ‘simplicity’, ‘suggestion’, and ‘irregularity’, and certainly achieves the desired symbolism of yugen or ‘elegant mystery.’

Fig 6)

Bonsai is the art of growing certain trees and shrubs, of many varieties, in small, shallow containers. … It is through careful and precise training and pruning, that the plant is slowly shaped and manipulated to give the appearance of an older, mature tree (Fig 6).

4 Sites of Memory (lieu de mémoire )

“A lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.  It may refer to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag or the French figure Marianne, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). According to La Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoire communs (French-Québécois Commission for Common Sites of Memory) a lieu de mémoire signifies the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).  The term sites of memory was outlined in a seven-volume study edited by Pierre Nora,and has been extended to many different texts, from legends to stories to concepts. 

Sites of memory are entities which groups of people engage with in public activity through which they express “a collective shared knowledge of entity’s past, on which a group’s sense of unity and individuality is based.”‘ The group engages with such entities inherits earlier meanings attached to it, as well as adding new meanings. Such activity is crucial to the presentation and preservation of commemorative entities. When such groups disperse or disappear, sites of memory lose their initial force, and may fade away entirely. 

Memory is a major theme in contemporary life, a key to personal, social and cultural identity. Scholars have studied the concept from different perspectives and within different disciplines: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, geography, architecture, urban design, and the interdisciplinary “place studies”. According to Pierre Nora, places of memory refer to entities where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself”; the places where the exhausted capital of collective memory condenses and is expressed (Fig 7). To be considered as such, these entities must be definable in the three senses of the word: material, symbolical and functional, all in different degrees but always present. What makes an entity a memory site is the interplay of memory history and imagination.

As sites of memory became better known and made official by governments, they can tend to homogenize varied local memories. In Nora’s words: “In the past, then, there was one national history and there were many particular memories. Today, there is one national memory, but its unity stems from a divided patrimonial demand that is constantly expanding and in search of coherence.” Thus sites of memory may risk becoming “invented traditions”.

The concept has been listed in Le Grand Robert de la langue française, the authoritative French dictionary, and studied by scholars and others. There are attempts made to map sites of memory globally. Quebec and France have a joint commission to identify and codify sites of memory. An International Coalition of Sites of Conscience of more than 200 museums, monuments and other institutions around the world uses the concept to group “sites, individuals, and initiatives activating the power of places of memory to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future.

Fig 7 Places as reservoirs of memory

Ecological Sites of Memory is a Rachel Carson Centre project that seeks to look into the historical memories that resonate in our environmental thinking, thus bringing environmental history into a dialogue with the burgeoning field of memory studies. Important questions are What are the key events that have influenced and defined our understanding of environmental issues? How did memories take shape, and how have they changed over time? Do memories create opportunities for environmentalism, or are they more of a hindrance in the light of today’s challenges? And how do these memories relate to historical facts?  Locating Imagination in Popular Culture offers a multi-disciplinary account of the ways in which popular culture, tourism and notions of place intertwine in an environment characterized by ongoing processes of globalization, digitization and an increasingly ubiquitous nature of multi-media.  With respect to the role of imagination in place popular culture and media are becoming increasingly important to the ways in which places and localities are imagined.  Also, how they do media use narratives to stimulate a desire to visit the actual places in which people’s favourite stories are conveyed through media to stimulate and reflect desire in tourism. 

8 Internet references

Simplify to amplify

Fetzer Report 2020

The Threshold Society

Memory  Sites

‘The Saints’: Suffolk, England

Panna Biosphere Reserve; India

Govardhan Hill; India

St Denis’ Well; Cardiff, Wales 

Borobudur: Java

Landscapes without memory

A Zen and Taoism Pedagogy

Imagination and spirituality

Wishing for Wellbeing, Old Clee, UK

Wishing for Well Being

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

The ‘Wishing Stone’, Church Lane, Old Clee.

Curiosity about the world is one of the joys of childhood. Discovering everything for the first time, a child never stops asking, “Why?” Why this and not some other world? Why blue, why green, why thunder, why snow, why? If we are very fortunate, this curiosity stays with us throughout our lives. Wondering about the world and trying to understand how it works and why is one of the finest things we do as a species. Michael Frame

1 Prosperity

We can use the word ‘hope’ to talk about things that we desire for other people. In these cases, the meaning of  ‘hope’ is similar to ‘wish’. This meaning of ‘hope’ was used by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018.  He defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

“ …morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainable virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, ‘adnabod’ in Welsh, which means recognise or know someone.  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as a neighbour in a true humanism”.

 Education has a key role to play. First, students somehow encounter material and immaterial traces of the past in their daily lives or later when they are adults. They are thus participants in the continuous social process defined as eutierria: “a good and positive feeling of oneness with the earth and its life forces.”  It arises when the human-nature relationship is spontaneous and mutually enriching (symbiotic).  We are both separate and one.  Neither standpoint by itself will do to make the selection and give meaning to the past in which people in the present form their identities. Second, due to processes of mobility and migration, new artefacts and ideas come into focus. 

This is how education for sustainable development will become based on the replacement of monetary prosperity with Williams’ universal prosperity of sharing for the common good.  The common good is defined as “certain general conditions that are… equally to everyone’s advantage”. … The pay off, from sharing the common good, is prosperity, as well being, to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment and increased prosperity no one can be easily excluded. Real prosperity would be using sustainable energy sources and aiming towards non-financial goals such as family life, health and community. The Buddhist definition of prosperity is based on collectivism and compassion, is a good way begin thinking about non-monetary prosperity.

2 Imagination and Bluestones

This blog is about exploring the topic of ‘making wishes’. I first encountered its practicality in 1940 as a six year old boy roaming Grimsby’s Greetham’s Fields, with a gang of older children from Cooper Rd and Ladysmith Rd at the very edge of the town’s urbanisation. The following ritual was enacted at the ‘Wishing Stone, then, as now, sited beside the back gate of what we called the Curvy Cottage on the corner of Church Lane, Old Clee.

The wish-maker first recited the following rhyme: 

To make a wish;

First spit and turn. 

Then catch a kiss.

Next, you stood on the stone, spat on it, turned around three times, spreading your saliva over the surface; girls clockwise, boys anticlockwise.  After making the wish, someone might blow you a kiss, when a couple were said to be ‘sweethearting’.  Needless to say, a common wish in the 1940s was for the war to end.

This is not to say that the wishing stone did not once play a deeper role in the social life of adults in and around the village.  The stone belongs to a group of volcanic rocks known locally as bluestones.  They are thought to have been transported to Lincolnshire by glaciers  from the Whin Sill outcrop in Northumberland.  In days before maps they were frequently used on Lincolshire’s flat featureless claylands as boundary markers. Several marker bluestones are described in Bates’ book entitled “A Gossip about old Grimsby”.  There is a bluestone at Immingham situated in the carpark of the Bluestone Inn, Bluestone Lane.  Louth has a bluestone, now at the entrance to the museum.  Others gave the name Bluestone Heath to a remote part of the Wolds, traversed by an ancient ridgeway between Candlesby and Caistor.  This widespread distribution raises questions regarding the uses of other kinds of rocks moved by glaciation and deposited as Boulder Clay, (now called Till) when the ice melted. For example, a large block of distinctive granite from the Lake District was found during the excavation of Grimsby’s docks indicating that ice from the Lake District had crossed the Pennines and merged with North British ice.  Larvikite, a rare rock type from the Oslo Fjord area of southern Norway, is frequently found in the till beneath the submerged forests on the Lincolnshire coast. Some of these stones, called erratics, may have been gathered to build Old Clee Church’s Saxon tower, which is a compendium of many kinds of rocks scraped from the bedrock over which the ice travelled. 

Because of its rarity and size Old Clee’s bluestone will always trigger a sense of wonderment.  In the pre-scientific past it would have been a mystery; a doorway for the imagination and therefore a tool for learning the symbolic rural language of mental processes deep in the mind.  These are referred to as the unconscious. The unconscious deals with feelings and is a much larger realm than most of us realize. It has a complete life of its own, an enormous field of nerve energy, which constantly streams through our imaginations as a powerful organ of communication to make sense of the environment.   It does not make anything up but gives preexisting symbols a cultural meaning. Wishes exist because they are fleeting thoughts released by some kind of symbol. They are sudden daydreams that are appealing because you think they would make your life better. You see the surface of someone else’s life, and wish you could have that too.  

Eighty years ago, in Church Lane, the knowhow for making wishes was staged in a primitive courtship ritual which was passed from child to child at the boundary of their understanding. We were children of newly urbanized grandparents living in densely packed Edwardian terraces built on Grimsby’s former pastures (Figs 1 & 2).  In this sense, Old Clee is now a small, green ritual landscape left behind after a tide of post-war urbanisation..

Fig 1 Map of Old Clee, its pasture lands and the wooded Weelsby Estate (1905-6)

Fig 2  Ladysmith Rd.; the tree-less edge of Grimsby’s Edwardian urbanisation named after a British success in the Boer War. My childhood home.

In the early 1940s children’s imaginations were occupied with the Wizard of Oz, Pinochio, Snow White and Bambi, movies that all focussed on the power of making wishes.   From this point of view, it would only take the imagination of one child to invent a wishing stone myth that would be eagerly adopted by others. In this context, I remember many of us actors in the Church Lane wishing ritual had invented imaginary companions for effective coping with the blitz on dockland but, which scattered its bombs in the surrounding fields.  These invisible friends were a positive source of entertainment, friendship, and social support when making a wish. 

3 Landmarking the past

By Identifying prosperity with oneness in nature, can we identify patterns in cultural systems that could provide a systematic model for developing cities?  That is to say, can we build cities that will always and simultaneously incorporate the essential characteristics of ecologically sustainable ruralism promoting oneness with nature?  Might this be applicable for fractal reproduction of sustainable cultures across the spectrum from eco-village to eco-metropolis?  Today we can view our reactions to volcanic bluestones and other glacial erratics as solid symbols of this spectrum of cultural ecology. We can use the passengers of glaciation to meditate on Grimsby’s efforts to be great again after decimating the North Sea fishing stocks that earned it, briefly, the title of greatest fishing port in the world, and face up to the catastrophic polar ice melt of global warming. The bluestones provide an educational window to see the town in a ruralised glacial landscape.  In fact they offer local history a cosmic timescale for people to think about the short term mindless actions of their leaders in relation to securing the future of great grandchildren yet to come.

However, for me, above and beyond all this, Old Clee’s wishing stone marks a route to articulate the common wish of humanity for a better life.  This wish for economic prosperity brought my heroic grandparents to Grimsby from harsh livelihoods as agricultural labourers in the East Anglian countryside.  It was then perceived as a Victorian boom town, which attracted hundreds of economic migrants far and wide.  They were aiming for what they imagined would be a life of monetary plenty. This vision of Grimsby is now curated as history with the objective to stimulate the unconscious as an image/memory value forming faculty. These days the past is expressed in digital landmarking, adding heritage values to objects, places and neighbourhoods.  By viewing and collecting digital landmarks we encounter material and immaterial traces of the past in our daily lives. We are thus participants in the continuous social processes of social selection which gives meaning to the past.  People in the present value where they live and identify with it through pride in place.  This process of self education is particularly important to the future of Grimsby and other post industrial communities who, like Rowen Williams, are struggling to rethink individual prosperity in a world of increasing inequalities.  Prosperity is now being seen as a non monetary lifestyle, something to be wished for among several alternatives to conventional economic prosperity. The big wish is for a fairer society that operates within Earth’s ecological limits.  

Using social media, like this Internet page for digital landmarking, is to make an open international educational resource for the application of arts reasoning to explain sustainability.  Here the task of educators is to master the imaginative power of heritage and demonstrate to young people, fed up with a curriculum they see as irrelevant to their future, that history is not boring but life saving. The local library’s digital initiative clearly energises people to generate blogs, posts and pages demonstrating that heritage values represent a public interest in places, regardless of their ownership. Therefore, the use of law, public policy and public investment is justified to protect that public interest and incorporate it into plans for living sustainably.  In this context, a wish to save Grimsby’s huge, but redundant, dockside ice factory inevitably nudges us closer towards a culture of sustainability and equity.

At the start of the 2nd World War, Old Clee comprised a Saxon church, two farms, and a handful of ornamental cottages (Fig 3) built for agricultural labourers owing deference to the super–wealthy Grant Thorald family, who owned much of the parish. Little had changed since Old Clee was mapped as a cultural island at the turn of the 20th century (Fig 1) Its lord of the manor lived two miles away in his vast landscaped Weelsby Hall domain.  The fractal housing of urbanising Clee is evidenced by the identical bay windowed semi detached houses of the 1930s, lined up along Clee Crescent (Fig 4), punctuated by the singular, expensive, arts and crafts mansion. through whose railings I peered and wondered as a small child (Fig 5).  Development of what remained of its former open fields was paused until the War ended.  The fields, ditches and hedgerows awaiting development for housing were rich in biodiversity.  It was commonplace to encounter nesting birds, exotic butterflies, bats minnows and water voles.  Now the only evidence for its agricultural past and outstanding biodiversity is a few acres of wilding impoverished pasture at the end of Church Lane (Fig 6).

Fig 3. Grant Thorald’s Old Clee estate cottages in the Dutch style (1870s)

Fig 4 Clee Crescent fractile mass produced housing; pre-2nd World War

Fig 5 A unique Arts and Crafts ‘mansion’, Clee Crescent

But what if it were different, asks Paul Downton, founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘eco city pioneer’?  What if, every time we added to the urban weave we duplicated units of ruralism that not only provided good shelter for people but also increased biodiversity and enhanced the value of natural capital?  At best, sustainability and equity. are spiritual emotions denoting a profound sense of belonging with nature and refer to positive, pleasant feelings like joy, exaltation and the sublime feeling of living in nature.  These feelings may lead to a sense of inner peace that suspends the individual in a deep, inner spiritual state, which is hard to explain rationally with words and is best understood through lived experience and the application of memory and imagination.  This is where memory sites are a form of natural capital that can provide roots to bind urbanised people to place.

Fig 6  Church Lane end, Old Clee.

Memory is a major theme in contemporary life, a key to personal, social and cultural identity.  A memory site is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time, has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of a community.  It may refer to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). What makes an entity a memory site is the interplay of memory history and imagination. 

To be considered as a memory site an entity must be definable in three senses: material, symbolic and functional, all in different degrees but always present. Within this category of memory sites Old Clee may be categorised as a ritual landscape where memory crystallizes and secretes itself around its wishing stone. Ritual landscapes are often associated with origin myths, ancestors, homes of spiritual essences, or locales where mythical or historical events occurred.  The features of ritual landscapes embed collective memory exemplified by groups that include nations, generations, communities and the preservation of the myths, histories, and the belongings of a locale.  Aside from a place of origin and mythology, ritual landscapes were also considered places of protection and renewal. Now memory sites are in need of protection because they landmark the cultural, traditional, spiritual, and religious importance of nature to people in their day to day surroundings. 

4 Internet References

More on Clee Fields…..

Open fields in Old Clee

Neighbourhoods and urban fractals

Ancestors and place

Grimsby and Cleethorpes Place Names

Memory  Sites

Adopting Arts Thinking to Explain Sustainability

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

Establishing spiritual bonds with landscapes (Fig 1)

“A Tibetan pilgrim marches into sacred valleys aware and in touch with local spirits. His journey is an ascent into a divine residence: a mountain and its roots. As a guest, the pilgrim offers gifts and proceeds with caution and awakened senses. These and other practices weave together a world of places physically present, socially powerful, and personally meaningful”.  Chris Limburg.

1 Spirituality and deep thinking

 Fig 1 Pilgrimage Mountain, Corixus, (2021)

Spirituality and religious activity have been a source of comfort and relief from stress for multitudes of people. While people use many different religions and secular paths to express their spirituality world, ​research has shown that those who use their spirituality to cope with challenges in life experience many benefits to their health and well being.


Spirituality is the broad concept of a belief in something beyond the self. It may involve religious traditions centering on the belief in a higher power, but it can also involve a holistic belief in an individual connection to others and to the world as a whole.  The transcendentalists were responsible for introducing the distinction between religion and spirituality, which is a prominent issue of life in the West today. Spirituality offers a worldview that suggests there is more to life than just what people experience on sensory, physical levels.  It suggests that there is something greater that connects all beings to each other and to the universe itself. Scientifically, this connection is centred on the biochemical unity of life on Earth and its dependence on a Big Bang cosmology that produced all the materials and energy for the evolution of life.  Spirituality strives to answer deeper questions about the meaning of this life, how people are connected to each other and truths about the universe.   and other mysteries of human existence such as consciousness, free will and God.  Other former inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, have been explained by scientific advancements, but consciousness, free will and commitment to a supreme being seem to recede ever further away from understanding.

To think deeply means to go beyond what you think you know. It means to let go of preconceived ideas in order to discover wider truths. By cultivating the skill of deep thinking, we can gain freedom of thought. Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy which promotes the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus the restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. Things are deemed to have instrumental value if they help one achieve a particular end; intrinsic values, by contrast, are understood to be desirable in and of themselves.  The deeper your thinking becomes, the more focused, meaningful andvauable your actions will be.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives on intrinsic values. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience; something that touches us all. For instance, people may describe a spiritual experience as sacred, transcendent or simply as a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.   The notion of ‘spirituality in place’ refers to an educational framework for self education that allows people who live and walk there to find greater meaning in their surroundings.  This framework for place-based spirituality  to weave together humanity, sensuality with sustainability, illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow originally identified these needs as ‘physiological maintenance’, ‘safety’, ‘love’, ‘esteem’, ‘self-actualization’ and ‘self-transcendence’.  When one of these hierarchical needs is “fairly well satisfied, the next need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life”.  The highest level is an expression of self-transcendence characteristic of individuals who have “peak experiences” that strive to further a goal beyond the self.  Self-transcendental goals may involve service to others, devotion to an ideal (e.g. truth, art) or a cause (e.g. social justice, environmentalism, the pursuit of science, a religious faith) and/or a desire to be united with what is perceived as transcendent or divine. 

2  Meditation and mindfulness

According to Maslow, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”  As such it is the goal of many contemplative practices (Fig 2).

Fig 2 The variety of contemplative practices 

Because of the importance of developing self transcendence new pedagogies are needed to train our minds to dwell fully in the present moment, using contemplative practices that have no goal, no purpose other than just being ).  Eihei Dogen addressed this issue in his “Genjo koan” essay, where he says “When the self advances toward the ten thousand things, is delusion. When the ten thousand things advance to the self, that’s awakening.”  Henry Thoreau defined the methodological problem succinctly as the “difficulty in placing your head where your body is”.  Thoreau continues;

“Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither.  I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.  In my afternoon walk I would feign forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society, but it still  happens sometimes that I cannot easily shake the village.  The thought of some work will run through my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of  my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking out of the woods?”.

The difference between the two states of mind might best be appreciated by calling the first state a “nature meditation” and the second “objectless meditation”.  The latter takes the form of a classic Buddhist practice, which David Jones believes is of limited value because, “… if we are not fully engaged in our experiences at the present moment, then we’re missing stuff. And, if we’re only focused on ourselves, our feet, our muscles, our breathing, we won’t be fully present during this practice.  

Referring to meditative walks, Jones’ advice is, “Center yourself before you begin. It’s important to get your head in the right space before you start. This is where you form the “intention” of your “intentional walk.” In a way, you’re making a vow to walk as a truly awake person, aware and engaged.  Engage the world with all your available senses and attention. Everything around you is a part of you and you’re a part of it; learn to see that connection and you’ll find compassion waiting there”.

A goal of meditation, and its outcome of mindfulness, is to become aware of your thoughts in a nonjudgmental fashion.  ‘Yoga International’ claims that meditation is a practical means for calming yourself, for letting go of your biases and seeing what is, openly and clearly. It is a way of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning. Meditation teaches you to systematically explore your inner dimensions. It is a system of commitment, not commandment. You are committing to yourself, to your path, and to the goal of knowing yourself. But at the same time, learning to be calm and still should not become a ceremony or religious ritual; it is a universal requirement of the human body.  

Jeff Warren takes up the idea of meditation-as-path to explore existential questions that have to do with the nature of experience itself, with who we are at the deepest level. It is both a means and an end.  These insights can involve more dramatic transformations around our sense of self and agency and wholeness. Meditation in this sense is both a discovery and a training.  We gain experience about the nature of reality, and yet paradoxically we are sculpting our mind-bodies to receive these discoveries.

School children are experiencing the nature of reality when they complain about the vast quantities of seemingly useless information that they are forced to memorise as part of their education.  Had they been the children of Stone Age hunters, they would have learned their lessons first hand, where the practical value in everyday life would have been obvious. Prehistoric people had to become masters of observation, with an acute knowledge of every plant and animal shape, colour, pattern, movement, sound and smell in so far as knowledge of these aspects of their environment enabled them to survive in a hostile world.  This urge to find memorable pattern and harmony in the environment is called taxophilia and accompanies spirituality.  The human taxophilic imperative was so important that it evolved to become as basic and distinct as the need to feed, mate or sleep.  Originally our ancestors may have classified berries or antelopes as part of their food-finding activities.

In the abstract world of the modern classroom, botany can seem remote, geology boring, and entomology meaningless.  Yet despite these complaints, the taxophilic instinct remains as an urge to commit to memory huge assemblages of facts on topics that will hardly ever encounter a need in the future.   Information is not just simply accumulated; it is classified, particularly where there is a current social context, such as the latest football statistics, scores and titles of pop music, and the makes and dates of manufacture of motorcars.

The human brain functions as a magnificent classifying machine, and every time we walk through a landscape it is busy feeding in new experiences and comparing them with the old.  The brain classifies everything we see, and the survival value of this procedure is obvious. It is also the case with other mammals.  A monkey, for instance, has to know many different kinds of trees and bushes in its forest home, and needs to be able to tell which one has ripening fruit at any particular season, which is poisonous, and which is thorny.  If it is to survive, a monkey has to become a good botanist.  In the same way a lion has to become a first-rate zoologist, able to tell at a glance, which prey species it is, how fast it can run, and which escape pattern it is likely to use.


3  Walking mindfully

In the 1950’s, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote an essay on people’s interaction with urban landscapes, and proposed the idea of psychogeography.  This focuses on discovering forgotten aspects or paths less traveled in the city and the effects that has on the individual in a receptive state.  Debord devized groups of these routes he called “dérives,” (French for “drift”) which were basically long, meandering walks around Paris. Dérives were described as “an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations,” and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”  Debord’s practice of ‘walking drifts’ is the practical outcome of the Buddhist ‘mindful walking practice’, where the goal is to concentrate the mind on the bodily experience of putting one foot in front of the other to reach a high level of awareness defined as mindfulness.   Walking mindfully for a Buddhist is simple; walk at a very slow pace looking down at your feet as you walk. As you pick up one foot, consciously inhale. Setting your foot down, consciously exhale. Focus only on your breathing and footsteps. If thoughts start to pop up in your mind, refocus back on your breath. 

The big question about walking mindfully is how does the practice of mindfulness contribute to individual behaviour change and how does this individual change translate into societal change?

In Debord’s ‘situational practice’ the walker from the start is a spectator on the lookout for the unexpected intervention for deeper thinking.   Situationism is the theory that says changes in human behavior are factors of the situation rather than the mental traits a person possesses. Behaviour is believed to be influenced by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations. However, we can never be free of educational preparedness for accepting the invisible. Indigenous African thought systems believe that the world consists of two realities: the visible and the invisible worlds. The invisible spiritual world comprises entities that are imperceptible to the naked eye but exist within the same temporal/spatial realm of visible human beings. As the visible world changes how does this affect the invisible world? 

The act of experiencing unforeseen changes within a periodic routine has been thoroughly embodied and cherished in both Buddhism and Situationism as a means to achieve moments of enlightenment. A situational walk can be categorized into two stages based on the scale of intervention into the existing urban texture. At the human scale, it can be a series of unexpected architectural insertions, which serve as an invitation for the spectators to explore their taken-for-granted city life under different, unexpected perspectives. These insertions are considered as the unplanned destinations of the walk and in a Zen framework they can serve as stimuli to record deeper thinking about them in words or pictures. At the urban scale, Dubord proposed the deliberate introduction of a number of conceptual pathways for ‘drifting’ and ‘changing course’ as a method of making connections between the human scale insertions. These urban interventions will serve their purpose as the journey, which encourages the spectators to deviate from the ordinary and emerge into the unexpected.  It’s difficult for people to accept but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.  In other words, most of the time we are simply reacting instinctively to the world around us. The Buddhist pedestrian seeks to avoid interventions as distractors of meditation whereas the walking Situationist embraces them as starting points for meditations,

The Jesuit priest/poet and Situationist Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the sonnet “God’s Grandeur” in 1877 to convey his reverence for the magnificence of God and nature.  The background was his despair about the way that humanity has seemed to lose sight of the close connection between God and nature during the Industrial Revolution.  The word “grandeur” means grandness or magnificence and was used by the semi-Christian Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. For him, grandeur was the wonderful things generated by natural selection, which he described as ‘the war of nature’, that had a simple and chaotic beginning to produce endless forms and ways of life.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In his journals, Manley Hopkins used two terms, “inscape” and “instress” to define the visual system by which we are able to select things in our surroundings for deep thinking and pass on our feelings about them to others.   By “inscape” he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by “instress” he means the force of being which holds the inscape together and carries it whole into the mind of the beholder, from which it reappears as a personalised poem or other art form. The system in which inscape and instress are major components of learning-by-seeing is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment (the inscape).  It is a route to creativity, as an integral part of the dynamic attributes of our perceptual and conceptual systems (the instress).

Hopkins says “unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”  Hence, an object’s inscape is not truly discovered until a poet, for example, combines observation with self-examination. The final step of the process is achieved by taking what has been discovered and subsequently studied to capture the object’s essence in words or pictures.  If you have a companion with you the inscape cannot be examined and reported on in this way. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by inscapes; they permeate everything that we see and do.  

There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.” G.M.H.

The term inscape refers to the unifying designs by which the unique interior essences of a thing are expressed at its surface,. The word does not merely refer to what is particular and individual about an object, but defines an order or pattern by which these individual essences form an harmonious composition.  For example, Manley Hopkins, in his poem,  As Kingfishers Catch Fire, selected two optical images from an aquatic ecosystem, a kingfisher and a dragonfly.  He selects them because of their individual colourful inscapes. The inner tensions of textures, shapes, patterns and composition by which a reader can recapture the poet’s perception and experience he defines as their instress. Inscape and instress define the actual creative process of an author and determine how it is received into the sight, memory and imagination of a reader so they can recapture the poet’s perception and experience. 

In 1872 Hopkins discovered that Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308), who was one of the most important and influential Christian philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages, has put forward a theory of haecceitas, not unlike his own theory of inscape.  Scotus argues that every thing and every natural phenomenon contains within itself individual properties (principle of individuation) which differentiate it from every other thing. He argues that  each thing possesses intrinsic qualities which make it ‘this thing’ [=haecceitas]  rather than that thing.  It seemed to Hopkins that this endorses his own vision of the makeup of the natural world.  As a Jesuit, Hopkins realises that he is theologically entitled to his perception of the natural world in which each thing, including man, has a specific purpose that reflects its glorious Creator.  For a humanist or a Buddhist it is absolutely clear that facing grandeur expressed in places, systems or objects today there is no longer a need to underline some mythical or divine presence because grandeur is endemic in the thing itself.

Manley Hopkins developed his ideas about inscape and instress around the English verse style.  Can they be applied to the creation of other art forms ? Surely the answer is yes.  For instance, a  digital image where colour is the primary factor responsible for making it feel exciting, lively, mysterious or perhaps melancholic, defines its inscape (Fig 3).  Its instress is revealed by stripping out the colour (Fig 4).  The black and white image highlights more fundamental aspects of the picture, such as the subject, the textures, shapes, patterns, and the composition.  The images have to be viewed as pairs.

Fig 3 God’s grandeur; a ‘ Suffolk gull’ ( the inscape)

Fig 4 God’s grandeur; a ‘Suffolk gull’. (the instress)

5 Buddhist practice and Street View

Google Street View allows an individual to bond virtually with landscapes throughout the world,  It  is a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides 

interactive panoramas from positions along streets. It was launched in 2007 in several cities in the United States, and has since expanded to include cities and rural areas in other countries with the aim of documenting  everything in the world that could be seen from a moving car. Street View is a massive, undiscerning machine for image-making whose purpose is to simply capture everything.  Street View takes a continuous panoramic photograph as the camera car is driven along the public roads without apparent concern for ethics or aesthetics, from a supposedly neutral point of view.  The screen-clicking viewer follows the car route on Google Earth, to ‘walk’ mindfully, forwards, backwards or sideways, to reveal a sequence of walking pace views.  These views can be captured and their position recorded on Google Earth as a preliminary to a dialectic between a viewer and a virtual locale.

Working with Google Earth can be a virtual pilgrimage or journey to a sacred place motivated by religious devotion.  However,  the term may also be applied to a meditative search for new spiritual experiences, prolonged wanderings, or travel to a place of nostalgic meaning or absence through bereavement for an individual.  In this context, the term ‘therapeutic landscapes’ was first coined by health geographer, Wilbert Gesler, in 1992 to explore why certain environments seem to contribute to a healing sense of place. Since then, the concept and its applications have evolved and expanded as researchers have examined the dynamic material, affective and socio-cultural roots and routes to experiences of health and wellbeing in specific places and the dynamic nature of people’s therapeutic place assemblages over time.  Objectification, the process through which physical things are imbued with meaning in a specific sociocultural context, is a key concept in this understanding. Objectification is the capacity of things to carry meaning.  It therefore has the potential to assist individuals in their personal growth. Recognition of the symbolic dimension of objects through contemplation is particularly critical in enabling individuals to strive for detachment in highly materialistic societies. 

Semi abstract landscape snapshots can become things of the spirit and objects to meditate upon. The semi abstraction is applied using an algorithm that simplifies the image by desaturating the colour and maximising and unifying surface texture (Figs 5-7  ). Different moments in time and space are then  available for comparative meditation.  Photography encourages mindfulness by heightening our awareness of seeing.  Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily in order to see more clearly. To see in this way involves shifting to a frame of mind in which the habitual view of a familiar and self-evident world is replaced by a keen sense of the unprecedented and unrepeatable configuration of each moment. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.  The following paragraph describes taking a photography as a zen routine.

Fig 5 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Linstead Magna, Suffolk   

Fig 6  Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk 

Fig 7 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk

When feeling ready, focus your eyes at the centre of your picture and relaxingly keep on your deep breathing. Some feelings and thoughts will start occurring. Take a notice of them but don’t dwell in them. Observe them like they are the feelings and thoughts of somebody else. Your main interest is your breathing. When and if your eyes want to move around the image, let them do so. And then let them focus wherever in the image they want. Don’t force them to stay focused in the centre or any part of the image, and don’t impel them to change place. Just keep your head motionless, focus on your breathing and trust your eyes.

The following is an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual routine by Diane Walker.

“Wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred.  That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results”.

6  The invisible landscape

According to Ed Bastian,

“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.” 

How does a transcendentally desirous individual live happily and meaningfully?  Zen thinking engages place as a fundamental arena to develop self-transcendence as a central concept behind Buddhist placemaking.  The groundwork is based on geographic thought and Buddhist practices of pilgrimage, namely the cultivation of enlightenment through mindfulness that comes from meditation as a spiritual practice.  The objective is to apply mindfulness to uncover a landscape’s unseen components.  These are the subjective resources of experience, memory, and a narrative, which people familiar with the place understand to be an integral part of its geography.  Outsiders may not suspect the existence of these resources unless they see and listen carefully. This invisible landscape is made visible though stories, and these stories are the focus of the art forms of Zen.  Zen-places encourage individuals to reveal the real condition of their situation as humans in the world working towards their goal of awakening via deep thinking about what they have perceived what they value and how it is communicated

Kent C. Ryden’s ‘Mapping the Invisible Landscape’ is an examination of the concept of place in which he detects and examines a dialectic between a given locale and the representation of that locale in folklore and literature. Traveling across the invisible landscapes in which we imaginatively dwell, Ryden asks the following questions. What categories of meaning do we read into our surroundings? What forms of expression serve as the most reliable maps to understanding those meanings? Our sense of any place, he argues, consists of a deeply ingrained experiential knowledge of its physical makeup; an awareness of its communal and personal history; a sense of our identity as being inextricably bound up with its events and ways of life; and an emotional reaction, positive or negative, to its meanings and memories.  These questions were the drivers for ‘Blything and Nine Parishes’  a community project launched in Suffolk at the dawn of the Internet. A practical goal was for people to seek out things of the spirit as peak experiences that attached them to their locale using a set of Zen aesthetic values embedded in landscape and works of art, whether they be paintings, gardens, ceramics, or architecture. These are, in brief: 

  • Wabi, a nostalgic sense of shabbiness, or decay brought on by age.  “Wabi”  connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the quirks and anomalies that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object; 
  • Sabi, a bittersweet sense of sadness or forlornness.  “Sabi” refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.; 
  • Shibui, a stark sense of unadorned simplicity; “Shibui” (adjective), “shibumi” (noun), and “shibusa” (noun) are Japanese words to express an aesthetic sense of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Originating in the Muromachi period (1336–1392) as “shibushi,” the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui still maintains that literal meaning, and remains the antonym of “amai,” meaning “sweet.” Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as “iki” and “wabi-sabi,” shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion. Shibusa objects appear to be simple overall, but include subtle details such as textures, that balance simplicity with complexity.  This balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object, but rather constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauties that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years.
  • Yūgen is said to mean a profound, mysterious sense of the hidden or suggested beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering. 

A Zen-place will likely exhibit one or more of these values, and they are apprehended by a person in a receptive state as things of the spirit.

4 Things of the spirit

“Spiritual but not religious”, also known as “spiritual but not affiliated”, is a popular phrase used to self-identify what a person accepts as being of ultimate importance. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.  However, in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon personal well being, while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.

An object connected with interior life  can convey the  essence of something that can not be understood necessarily by the mind, rather in the senses. All great works of art move and transport one into a state where we feel enchanted by the spirit of the painting, story, or song. We are taken over by an essence, an experience, that transforms our sense of a wider, deeper world and our place in it.  The phrase “power objects” has been used to describe transpersonal carriers, the term originating within every culture in the world.  Such objects of mediation have been called ‘artes’ and indigenous cultures especially view artes as tools, as aids to ensoulment i.e. they are used to define selfhood. Things of the spirit are thereby considered “animate” with consciousness and intelligence, a stretch of the imagination that justifies their collection as evidence of well being.  Connecting to spirits through objects is the essence of Shamanism, an ancient religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance. The goal of this is usually to direct these spirits or spiritual energies into the physical world, for healing or another purpose. 

Intangible, non-physical concepts are difficult to grasp. They are elusive by nature because we cannot see, feel, touch or hear them.  Artes are representations of what is meaningful to us as well as links to greater unseen forces we know exist in our cosmos. We engage and commune with these objects because it gives us the physical sensation and connection our bodies crave.  A collection of artes collected together on an altar (Fig 8) helps devotees cultivate the ability to connect at a deeper, sharper, and more distinct level with the subtle realms, abstract concepts, and multiple dimensions we traverse in our daily shamanic lives.

Fig 8 A New Age, personalised shamanistic altar

Shamanism is everywhere. If we go deep in Hinduism and Buddhism, we find they have their base in shamanism, although now there is a difference between these institutionalised religions and shamanism, which was/is the original tribal earth spirituality.  It is generally agreed that shamanism originated among hunting-and-gathering cultures, and that it persisted within some herding and farming societies after the origins of agriculture. Some would say that the Hindu puja (Fig 9) evolved from the interactive shaman altar.

Fig 9 Hundu family puja

‘New Age’ is a range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices, derived from shamanism which rapidly grew in the Western world during the 1970s.  Although analytically often considered to be religious, those involved in it typically prefer the designation of spiritual or Mind, Body, Spirit and rarely use the term New Age themselves.

It was in this context that Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk  became involved in defining things of the spirit in their parish churches, particularly the villages representing settlements on the watershed of the River Blyth, which flowed through the town.  The project was taken up by the school’s poetry group, which made links with communities served by the school and its primary feeders. Pupils and their parents took pictures of objects in local churches to focus discussions about the importance of spirituality to a largely secular society.  The idea came from researching the demolition of the medieval church at Linstead Magna and the sale of Ubbeston’s church and its conversion to a private house.  There is now a biennial memorial pilgrimage to the site of Linstead’s church, which together with its churchyard, is a memorial artifact expressed by a crop mark in a huge arable field.  This has become a thin place where imagination about the past and present can run riot.  In this context, Avril Maddrell develops a thesis for the powerful absence-presence in vernacular memorial artefacts, spaces and performances at a variety of scales and locations.  She explores the ways in which the emotions, memory and materiality of absence through death/loss are expressed and negotiated in different memorial forms and landscape settings in the British Isles. She questions how living with absence as a result of bereavement or loss of an historical connection is mediated through different material forms and practices including expressions of continuing spiritual bonds with landscape.

7  A non dualistic pedagogy

Today, many people argue that scientific thinking presents a powerful challenge to religion because it offers explanations of nature, the cosmos, and human origins that require no reference to God or any other manifestation of spiritual power.  In an age dominated by economism and its supportive philosophy of instrumentalism, science thinking is taught as the essence of economism and instrumentalism. Science education is seen as an investment for future employment to support the endless growth and spread of capitalism.  For the past three centuries, education systems of the West have been based on an instrumentalist pedagogy of scientific thinking with unsustainable outcomes because the world is being used as a warehouse for our consumption and as a sink for our wastes. The concept of duality frames our world so that we split things up into separate sides.  There are many examples of dualistic thinking.  The separation of science and art in curricula is an instance of dualism with widespread repercussions in the way we treat ecological problems, which require cross subject thinking to solve them. The arts are often considered unimportant, or, at best, to have entertainment or recreation value. However, arts thinking has a wider and deeper scope centred on beauty and ethics as a system of moral principles concerned with what is good for individuals and society. In terms of effects on society, there is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger. Principles and standards of ethical behavior are as important to peace, order, and social cooperation in the world as they have ever been. Science, however, has very little to tell us about ethics. Also, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic disease, and crime have defied the best efforts of humanity’s scientific imagination. Amid the distresses and dangers of our contemporary era, people have sought not only cooperative, communal ties to one another but also moral and spiritual certainties. Spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human culture. In Zen and Taoist thinking, arts and science merge to become a holistic aspect of the human educational  experience.  It is in this context that the arts are essential and critical  to our planetary survival.  In particular, we need to apply arts thinking to explain sustainability.  We live unsustainably because we see but do not look.  We go for immediate judgement and we  intellectualise objects.  A nondual prescription to live sustainably is to first put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking long and hard. Second, do not treat objects as subjects for the specialists to chew over endlessly. Third,  just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself.  All Zen arts  provide ways to achieve this state of intensified consciousness.      

Zen as practice is really about re-animating our consciousness.  Zen arts are concrete, sensuous ways to  accomplish this re-animation of the self and the universe. The key to Zen arts is to repeatedly, release and arrest the hyperactive intellect by means of complete  absorption in what is perceived or experienced moment by moment. What results is intensification of  consciousness through concentrated and sustained attention.  This is how Thomas Berry evocatively describes the outcome of zen thinking: 

“The thousandfold voices of the natural world suddenly became inaudible  to the human. The mountains and rivers and the wind and the sea all  became mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no  longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply  so many board feet of lumber to be “harvested” as objects to be used for 

human benefit. Animals were no longer the companions of humans in the  single community of existence”.  

Similarly, Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Japanese Mingei (folk crafts) movement, gives this advice on incorporating a zen approach to  cultivate artistic perception for living sustainably:

“Such consciousness is no  longer divided into the subject and the object, the perceiver and the perceived.  The two poles of perception are integrated into a seamless unity, and as a result, a tremendous sense of vitality is released. This is how we re-animate the universe.  This is the way to heal our sense of existential alienation and numbing which  drives us more and more to such pathological behaviour as treating the world as  if it had no life of its own and existed solely for the human consumption and wastage”.

These quotations raise an important example of our collective nonduality with Earth. The basic problem now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just an endless collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of duality cannot continue?  A nondual ecological culture to manage Earth’s bounty sustaonaly is required to address an ecological crisis (Fig 10).  

Fig 10 A non dualistic pedagogy

8 Internet references

Contemplative photography

Connecting to spirits through objects


Things of the spirit at St Michaels

The puja

Spiritual life and moral codes

Community learning

Situationism and Buddhism

Zen with Google Street View

Towards a Buddhist place making

The real meaning of meditation

Learning from zen arts

Meditation: consider walking