Announcing: study circles

Welcome to 2023, all. Much of my past year has gone into a complete overhaul of the reverse side of Turning Signs, culminating in the publication of TS 2.2, which is now online. After a few years of focusing mainly on the transition, and trying to make sense of this time of our lives, i’d like to dig deeper into some of the basic patterns of sense-making and choice-making that have evolved on this planet.

This is what Turning Signs is about – especially the patterns that we don’t usually pay attention to, because they are as familiar as the air we breathe, and therefore unnoticed. But after 22 years of gathering information and inspiration from a wide range of sciences, arts and worldviews, and sharing the results online, i’m hoping to engage in some live conversations with other people who can bring their own ideas to the dialogue, using the book to focus the discussion.

So i’m starting a study circle which will meet periodically (mostly via Zoom) so that small groups of us can exchange views on the basic concepts developed in Turning Signs. It’s all explained on a new page of this blog, which contains a link to my email so you can let me know if you’re interested.

The opening session will be Saturday morning, January 7, at 10:30, and will introduce a special kind of meditation that has emerged from Turning Signs. I’ll be using this blog to notify subscribers of upcoming study circle sessions, so you might want to subscribe even if you’re not ready to join the circle this week.

Community Connections part 4

The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.

Thomas Berry (1999, p.3)

This series of blog posts has been mostly about humans connecting with other humans. But Turning Signs (both the book and the blog) has an equally important focus on connecting with planet Earth (biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and all). Instead of repeating anything i’ve already said here, i’d like to direct you to an article just published in Yes! Magazine, “An Indigenous Perspective on Reconnecting With the Land” by Chevaun Toulouse of Sagamok First Nation, which is just across the North Channel from where i live on Manitoulin Island. That should be a good way to wrap up this series on community connections.

Ministry for the Future

Dear subscribers, i sent this invitation to our local (Manitoulin Island) email group this morning, and decided to include you as well.

I’d like to invite you to a new book club for readers of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. It’s set in the immediate future on planet Earth, and the fictional situation is very much like what’s going on around us now.

It’s a gripping story with ecological, psychological, technological, political, ethical and spiritual dimensions. The chapters are mostly short, each with its own point of view, reflecting the diversity of human (and other) viewpoints. The book is widely available in print, Kindle and audiobook formats if you can’t find a copy to borrow.

There are various format options for the book club meetings too. I’m thinking of an in-person gathering at my place (the Honora Bay Free Theatre), perhaps every second Saturday morning, but this can be combined with a Zoom meeting at the same time for those far from Honora Bay (or even from Manitoulin Island). This can continue regardless of changes in public health guidelines.

That regular time and venue won’t be a good fit for everyone, so we could also have pop-up sessions at other times and places (and/or via Zoom) as requested by club members. If needed, I can set up an email list so members can inform each other about upcoming sessions. There is of course no charge and no obligation for club members, except to respect each other’s viewpoints during the conversations. I imagine it might take a few months to talk our way through the book, starting about two weeks from now.

If you are interested, let me know by replying privately to this and i’ll get back to you.

Refreshments

Another excerpt from Breaking Boundaries:

In our global intertwined system of 7.8 billion inhabitants living within a complex biosphere, the best way to change course is to alter the lens through which those people in the system view the world.”

Carl Folke: “We must reconnect with the biosphere: the living part of the planet.”

“This may seem obvious. It is like saying, ‘Hey, guys, remember, we live on a planet and we depend on it being stable.’ As if we had forgotten. But when you step back a bit – while driving down asphalt roads surrounded by concrete, steel, and glass, on your way to the shopping mall, to fill up on basic goods like food, and materials for shelter, safety, and comfort – you must admit that, yes, most of us have disconnected from the planet. A slow, silent, but all­-encompassing disconnect. We take our planet for granted, at least its stability.” [Breaking Boundaries, p. 110]

Viewing the world at every scale, without taking it for granted, refreshing our view of the time and place we inhabit, is the kind of meditative practice we need in order to “change course.” It’s also an essential practice for philosophers, who are perpetual beginners.

That link takes us to the beginning of the reverse side of Turning Signs, which is also “under refreshment.” The current (2nd) edition of Turning Signs, like the current (3rd) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is frequently updated online. In addition to some of the points in TS ·1, i’ve updated my introduction to phenoscopy (my name for the practice of “stepping back” to refresh our perceptions). It’s now also an introduction (or “presign”) to Turning Signs online. I’ll be giving links to other updates in future blog posts.

review: Power

Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.

The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:

“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]

This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.

Forthcoming works

My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)

In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.

Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.

I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.

In the between

My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.

This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.

I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:

As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

It’s all one transformation.

Corpus

In English and many other languages, including Latin and Greek, the same word can be used for a living body or a dead one, even though the difference is crucial in terms of how we relate to it.

On the other hand, several esoteric traditions, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Iranian mystics investigated by Corbin (1960), and early Christian texts such as the Gospel of Philip distinguish between two (or more) kinds of ‘body’:

[The master] was conceived from what [is imperishable], through God. The [master rose] from the dead, but [he did not come into being as he] was. Rather, his [body] was [completely] perfect. [It was] of flesh, and this [flesh] was true flesh. [Our flesh] is not true flesh, but only an image of the true.
Gospel of Philip 68 (NHS, 174)

We might compare Philip‘s ‘true flesh’ with Walt Whitman’s ‘real body’:

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.

Not the types set up by the printer return their impression, the meaning, the main concern,
Any more than a man’s substance and life or a woman’s substance and life return in the body and the soul,
Indifferently before death and after death.

Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!
Starting from Paumanok, §13
For Whitman, the ‘real body’ is the type which, like the type set by the printer, leaves its ‘impression’ on everything it touches. The printed copy of a book is but a token (replica, sinsign) of it; but it must exist in order for the act of meaning to occur. Likewise your soul must be embodied in order to manifest itself, but your living-and-dying body is only a temporary token of your real body.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Art of Living (2017), says that ‘we are not limited to our physical body, even while we are alive.’ He lists eight bodies that we all have: the human body, the buddha body, the spiritual practice body, the community body, the body outside the body (which is ‘present in many places in the world’), the continuation body (by which our thoughts, speech and actions continue to influence the world), the cosmic body, and the ultimate body (‘the nature of reality itself, beyond all perceptions, forms, signs, and ideas’). All of these bodies are real in the continuity of their presence: their interbeing is living the time.