Saturday, July 30, 2011

Getting to know Gaia 1


I have run out of inspiration on my sequence of posts on Spirituality per se, and shall leave the topic there for the moment.  Over the next several editions I should like to discuss the Gaia hypothesis.  However, it is beyond denial that spirituality is deeply linked with ecology and the earth in any case.  Hence, the next short sequence of posts is related to the foregoing ones.

Forging Connections

My own personal understanding of Spirituality is that it is about forging connections between persons, and indeed between persons and the universe, or more specifically and practically still between persons and the planet they inhabit.  Spirituality is all about a thrust to unity, union or communion.

The Interconnectedness of things

One does not have to be an Einstein to notice that in this universe one thing depends upon another and so on down the line as in an infinite domino effect.  Just look at the domino effect as we witnessed and still witness it in the global economic depression that is now hitting the world.  Same thing in the environment, as soon as one small essential element is disturbed, it has a knock-on effect on all animal life (including human animal life obviously) on this planet. 

Enter James Lovelock stage right

Planet Earth: Mother Gaia
James Lovelock, CH, CBE, FRS (1919 -      ) an independent scientist, environmentalist and futurologist who lives in Devon, England.  This great contemporary scientist proposed the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment.  He formulated his famous theory during the 1960s as a result of work he was doing for NASA that was concerned with the detection of life on Mars.  Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.  He named his theory after the Greek goddess Gaia at the suggestion of one of his friends, the great English novelist William Golding.  

Needless to say, a theory suggesting that the Earth itself could be a living organism drew much criticism and even scholarly and controversial debate.  The Green and environmentalist community, and those more holistically and spiritually inclined, readily accepted this theory, feeling very much at home in such a warm cuddly theory, if I may indulge momentarily in metaphor.  However, it drew the wrath of many mainline scientists who were more rigid in their approach to scientific knowledge, such as the evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, Ford Doolittle, and Stephen Jay Gould – notable, given the diversity of this trio's views on other scientific matters. The WIKI puts it succinctly thus: "These (and other) critics have questioned how natural selection operating on individual organisms can lead to the evolution of planetary-scale homeostasis." (See James Lovelock )

Let's look at other ways of explaining Lovelock's famous hypothesis. I will base what I have to say in these posts on the following books by James Lovelock which I have in my library: (i) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP, 1979, 1987, 1995, 2000), (ii) The Ages of Gaia (OUP, 1988, 1995, 2000), (iii)The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. (Allen Lane, Penguin, 2005) and finally (iv) The Revenge of Gaia (OUP, 2006).

Stated simply, the idea is that we may have discovered a living being bigger, more ancient, and more complex than anything from our wildest dreams. That being, called Gaia, is the Earth.  Looking at the earth over its evolutionary period we can say that roughly about one billion years after it's formation, our planet was occupied by a meta-life form which began an ongoing process of transforming this planet into its own substance. All the life forms of the planet are part of Gaia. In a way analogous to the myriad different cell colonies which make up our organs and bodies, the life forms of earth in their diversity co-evolve and contribute interactively to produce and sustain the optimal conditions for the growth and prosperity not of themselves, but of the larger whole, Gaia. That the very makeup of the atmosphere, seas, and terrestrial crust is the result of radical interventions carried out by Gaia through the evolving diversity of living creatures.

Link with Lewis Thomas

Another face of Mother Earth
Lewis Thomas (1913 – 1993) was a physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher who became Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. His formative years as an independent medical researcher were at Tulane University School of Medicine.  In the book The Lives of a Cell, Thomas makes an observation very similar to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis:

I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell.  (See Lewis Thomas )
Indeed James Lovelock actually quotes from Lewis Thomas' famous book on the flyleaf of The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Planet:

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive.  The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone.  Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.  If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land.  If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath.  It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously (sic) skilled in handling the sun.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Spirituality 15


Beacon near Howth Lighthouse
We often thank people for enlightening us about a particular problem or situation, allowing us to grasp the essence of whatever subject or object is in question.  However, in spiritual terms the word alludes to a revelation or deep insight into the meaning and purpose of all things, a communication with or an understanding of the mind of God or further still a profound spiritual understanding or a fundamentally changed consciousness whereby everything is perceived as a unity. 

Hard to Define:

Like the religious concept "God", enlightenment can be more easily explored by saying what it is not rather than by exploring what it is.  In theological language we call such an exploration of God or other deep and complex topic the "negative way" or "via negativa."  It is also sometimes called the "via negationis". According to the philosophy behind the via negativa, God is not an object in the universe and, therefore, it is not possible to describe God through words and concepts which are necessarily limiting. It is, instead, better to talk about God based upon what God is not.   Still another term for this way of exploring the idea of God is apophatic theology (from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι - apophēmi, "to deny."  Essentially all these terms mean the same thing.  We proceed by saying what X or Y or Z is not, and the implication then is that X, Y, Z surpasses or transcends what we have just said or explicated.  Essentially, the true nature of X, Y or Z is "ineffable" or "unsayable" precisely because it is so far beyond us.

In this regard, the way Masters of spirituality proceed is by telling stories which illustrate what X, Y or Z concept is not, and then by offering paradoxes as to what X, Y or Z maybe.  I offer below two stories  from de Mello in shortened form that elucidate on what enlightenment may be:

Enlightenment 1:

"What is greatest enemy of enlightenment?"


"And where does fear come from?"


"And what is delusion?"

"To think that the flowers around you are poisonous snakes."

"How shall I attain enlightenment?"

"Open your eys and see!"

Enlightenment 2

On the question of his own enlightenment the Master always remained reticent, even though his disciples tried every means to get him to talk.

All the information they had on this subject was what the Master once said to his youngest son who wanted to know what his father felt when he became enlightened.  The answer he had given was: "A fool."

When the boy asked why, the Master had replied:

"Well, son, it was like going to great pains to break into a house by climbing a ladder and smashing a window - and realising later that the door of the house was open." 

(One Minute Wisdom, pages 87 and 173 respectively)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Spirituality 14

Returning Home

Vintage car, Ulster Museum, March,  2011

There is nothing as reassuring for a child as returning home, home to the nest and to safety.  And indeed, the sense of the consolations of returning home stays with us for our whole lifetime, especially when we are tired or frustrated and want to escape from the world of fret and worry.  We are lucky, of course, if our homes are true homes in the sense that they are nourishing of the soul and healing of our cares.  Too many homes today are places of conflict, and if they are so, they certainly are not places of refuge or healing or of simple escape and rest.

Many moons ago when I was at college in the late nineteen seventies we studied sections of a book by Peter Berger (born 1929) the Austrian-born American sociologist.  That book was called The Homeless Mind, and he wrote it with two other sociologists, his wife and a guy called Kellner.  In this book, these scholars introduce the reader to the concept of modernization and its host of problems which it bequeaths to humankind.  They describe in their book these problems, and then set forth a model that attempts to explain how modernization takes place. Their stated hope is that the reader, after understanding how modernization occurs and the problems it brings about, will be better equipped to deal with modernization and to formulate methods of remedying its problems.

The crux of their explanation is that modernity has two processes (which they call "carriers") that have traditionally brought modernity to the masses. The first process or carrier is technology. These new ways of doing things have brought about new ways of thinking about things. Thus, the arrival of the technology of steam engines and consequently Henry Ford’s assembly line concept were technological advancements that were carried over into many aspects of industry. It soon came to the point so that most workers slaved in factories which used this assembly-line concept along with the other factory-related paradigms, and these eventually became not only processes of making automobiles, but also paradigms of thought for everyday life. Thus, as time went by, most members of the population adopted technological paradigms as methods for everyday reasoning.

As a result, say, of this assembly-line or conveyor-belt approach, people then began to see things as mere components of bigger things.  The sociologists coined the term "componentiality" to refer to this type of thinking.  Indeed, one might even argue, in like manner, that we have begun to think of ourselves as mere components of society.   This, then, results in the creation of "anonymous social relations." In a factory setting, the lowly assembly-line worker does a certain job - screwing in this or that part, which together with all the other parts screwed in or fixed by others - that goes to make up the automobile, without caring who added this or that.  There is, thus, less of a personal touch in the prevailing everyday way of looking at the world. Through this and other ideas brought about through technology, individuals slowly lose their identity. This contributes to the feeling of homelessness. They are alienated, consequently, not alone from their assembly-line colleagues and from the ultimate result of their labour (the car), but also from themselves.

The second major process which brings about modernization, and consequently the feeling of homelessness, according to the authors, is bureaucracy. This latter concept creates more "red tape," as it were, and the individual feels as if his/her life is being controlled to a greater extent than before. Further,  as a result of bureaucratic identification, the individual’s place in life is emphasized relative to the bureaucracy itself - instead of emphasizing the individual as a Smith or a Quinlan, or a member of a local club, his existence as a citizen, for example, is stressed. This leads to more anonymity; the individual becomes hidden in the masses of others who are also under the bureaucracy. The individual’s feelings of homelessness are increased. Add to this complexity the fact that there abounds a "pluralization of social life-worlds" in modern life.   As populations grow and expand due to modern processes, and to the free movement of modern humankind, they are introduced to many ideas that are alien to those shared by their original community, society or nationality.   This is the type of thing the Norwegian mass-murderer and right-wing Fascist Anders Breivik was railing against in his 1500 page manifesto which he published on the Web shortly before his dastardly acts of random assassination.

Moreover, many advances in science are not in perfect accord with beliefs previously held by the community, society or nation.  Thus, individuals come to understand that their ideas are not necessarily universal ones. Truths that were once held to be universally self-evident are now seen to be highly localized  and  even specifically national.  This inevitably gives the individual great doubts about the validity of beliefs which were formerly unquestioned by almost all in the particular society.  In the sad case of the recent mass-murders in Norway, one can see how one sad delusional individual, how one sad "homeless mind" in the person of the massacre-madman Anders Breivik could end up believing that his personal as well as national identity was reduced by the influx of other nationalities into his country.  He rails against multi-culturalism in his chilling manifesto which tries to explain his evil mission of slaughter.

It is almost incredible that someone could write 1,500 hate-filled pages in which he declares war on all Muslims and left-wingers.  Apparently, he even threatens therein to help bring down Western civilisation itself by the year 2083.  Breivik — who honed his terror skills at camps run by neo-Nazis called The Vikings — tells how he built up an arsenal of guns and had kept a huge explosives cache at his isolated farm. His manifesto also contains a diary spelling out the minutiae of what he did for the final three months in preparation for last Friday's bombing and shooting in which some 93 souls perished.  (The police have since reduced this figure to one in the early eighties - See this link here: The Sun Newspaper ).

Furthermore, I believe that the premise of the Bergers' book, named and described above, may go some way to explaining how a man like Anders Behring Breivik could possibly do what he did:

...The secularizing effect of pluralization has gone hand in hand with other secularizing forces in modern society. The final consequence of all this can be put very simply (though the simplicity is deceptive): modern man has suffered from a deepening condition of "homelessness." The correlate of the migratory character of his experience of society and of self has been what might be called a metaphysical loss of "home." It goes without saying that this condition is psychologically hard to bear. (p. 82)  (See this link here: Garret Wilson on Homeless Mind )

Exile versus Homecoming

My home, October, 2003
The Master's teachings did not find favour with the Government that had him banished from his country.  To disciple who asked if he never felt nostalgia for his homeland, the Master said, "No."

"But it is inhuman not to miss one's home," they protested.

To which the Master said:

"You cease to be an exile when you discover that creation is your home."

(Anthony de Mello, S.J., One Minute Wisdom, p. 98)


We are truly at peace when we are at home, relaxed, content with ourselves in our own minds.  This is what really matters.  Am I really and truly at home in my mind?  This is a very important question for our mental well being.  Obviously Anders Behring Breivik is certainly not at home in his own mind.  He is rootless and ruthless, homeless and estranged, a true outsider if ever there was one.  The mind at home with itself as opposed to the homeless mind finds its home no matter where it goes.  Hence it never misses home or is overcome by useless nostalgia or a hankering after things from the past that cannot be recreated here and now.  The mind at home with itself as opposed to the homeless mind can travel anywhere in the world and never feel lonely, because as Tony de Mello so well puts it - "We cease to be in exile when we discover that creation is our home."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Spirituality 13

Learning by Imitation

Self with students on a school outing to Glendalough
At the beginning of our lives I believe we all learn quite a bit by imitating the example of others, especially those of significant others in our lives.  However, learning by imitation is a two-edged sword, because we also learn the faults and errors of our teachers as well as their good qualities and good habits.

I remember one of my erstwhile education teachers Dr. Bernadette MacMahon, D.C., telling us that one of the first systems of teacher education or training involved a sort of apprenticeship, as well as formal lectures, where the young teacher spent a number of months in a classroom helping and learning from the "expert" teacher.  This system, she called the "Learning with Jenny" model of teacher training.  The obvious disadvantage of this system was that the young trainee learnt the so-called expert's "weaknesses" as well as "strengths."  The student teacher more often than not, like the apprentice, will learn the expert teacher's or tradesman's mistakes without questioning them.  However, Dr. MacMahon still believed that old system had a lot going for it, too, as it enabled the younger initiate to grow in confidence as a professional.  I'm ad unum with the learned lecturer here.

The Hazards of Imitation

13th century illustration: assasssination of Thomas a Becket
Murder in the Cathedral, (first performed 1935), that wonderful play by T.S. Eliot, recounts the murder of the great English saint Thomas a Becket.   The action occurs between December 2 and December 29, 1170 and chronicles the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas following his absence of seven years in France. Becket's internal struggle is the main focus of the play.  He wants to do the right thing for the right reason, not the right thing for the wrong reason.  In other words Eliot, through his character Becket, is making the point that our motivation in anything we do is important, even more important than the action itself, though that is sometimes hard to believe. (It is interesting to note that this play, dealing with an individual's opposition to authority, was written at the time of rising Fascism in Central Europe, and it can be taken as a call to individuals in affected countries to oppose the Nazi regime's subversion of the ideals of the Christian Church.)  In the following story from de Mello on imitation or the hazards of imitation, we learn the same lesson as Beckett and Eliot had deeply understood - motivation is all!

Imitation by Anthony de Mello

After the Master attained enlightenment he took to living simply - because he found simple living to his taste. 

He laughed at his disciples when they took to simple living in imitation of him.

"Of what use is it to copy my behaviour," he used say, "without my motivation.  Or to adopt my motivation without the vision which produced it?

They understood him better when he said:

"Does a goat become a rabbi because he grows a beard?"

(One Minute Wisdom, p. 75)