Most philosophy concerns words and meanings, arguments and debates. But wisdom is also a matter of perception and intuition. Images can sometimes convey what words cannot. We see in order to understand; intuit before the rational explanation becomes clear. And sometimes - best of all - we just stop and look, perceiving without any need for words.
Here are my reflections each month on a particular image. I hope you enjoy them and use them as a basis for your own reflections. I'd welcome any brief comments you'd like to send, and will hope to include them alongside my own.
When lost, we seek the familiar in order to get our bearings; when uncertain of ourselves, we may seek the comfort of home, or perhaps even escape our regular environment to seek a 'home' elsewhere; we sometimes feel the need to 'find' ourselves and our place in the world. We are constantly shaping envonments to express who we are, or who we wish to be. Our homes and gardens express personality (or lack of it), and spring - at least here in the UK - sees a rush to the garden centres and do-it-yourself stores, with new paths laid, bushes planted and rooms repainted. We settle into our improved environments. The image this month is of the the central stairwell of a cruise ship, everything moulded to please the eye and give a sense of a charmed life and ideal environment. Luxuriate in it for a couple of weeks. A cruise also brings you other environments at which you can peer in sanitised comfort as ports and foreign countries come and go. You briefly visit in air conditioned coach and then return to your luxurious environment. Nonsense, perhaps; certainly not serious travel. And yet it touches some of the deepest human needs; to be at home, to 'belong' to know your way around and be accepted.
So join the birds and enjoy your nestbuilding - after all, it's that time of year!
The wonder of the Spring and of new life! There are so many images that could be used here, of buds unfolding, of newly uncurled leaves, of hedgerows, but I can't resist this most amazing sign of new life - an unborn baby, snanned at 3 months. Only a few centimetres long, but already with human features, limbs that move, tiny fingers! Okay, I know that sounds disgustingly corny and sentimental! We know about the genetic code that determines all this; we have a good understanding of how life evolves. But such knowledge - clear, objective, detached - does not start to do justice to the experience and engagement with such new life. The experience is 'miraculous'; but not therefore relegated to some supernatural realm. This is nature experienced to the full, with a sense of wonder. Such experience is, in my view, essential for both the aesthetic and the religious modes of awareness - not of a different world, but of our one world, seen without getting trapped into the analytical mode of thought. Analysis is fine for understanding, essential for science, but cannot start to address what is revealed by art and religious ritual.
The political changes in the Ukraine may have knocked the floods off the centre of media focus, but for thousands of people the damage to their homes and businesses continues to bring unimaginable grief. I was reflecting on that the other day, as, walking near our local river, I noticed some chunks of concrete of personal archaeological interest. In the 1950s, the watermeadows regularly flooded, and the council provided a raised walkway, only a foot or so above the ground, to enable access to the buildings by the river. As a child, there was nothing more thrilling than walking along it, holding tight to the rail, surrounded by the surging water. Now recent flooding, by pulling aside the vegetation, has revealed its remains. I guess we all have our bits of personal archaeology, physical traces of past experiences, which - like ourselves - weather, change and fall apart over time. I reach down and touch the concrete slabs, and I am a child again. Of such is the complex tapestry of our experienced lives.
Waves both inspire and threaten. Recent storms emphasise again the lethal, destructive power of the sea, and yet it is often to the sea that we go for relaxation. We sit on beaches casually observing the alien, watery element, yet few would feel safe in its depths - as I pointed out in the introduction to The Philosopher's Beach Book. It frustrated me to read recently of a Christian fundamentalist claiming that the storms were God's punishment for the UK's position on Gay marriage - not just because of his views on homosexuality, but because he saw nature as controlled (via a rather strange, literal idea of God) by a narrow view of human morality. If ever there was a case of the tail wagging the dog! (We may be adding to climate change through our carbon emissions, and thus be indirectly responsible for shifts in weather patterns, but that's another rmatter.) Ever since Canute paid the price for foolishly claiming authority over nature, we should have learned to stand in awe of the natural elements, that are our unsettling, ultimately lethal home. Sadly, I'm not a surfer, but I love to watch them ride the waves. Now there's a lesson for us all: wait, watch, respect the power of the sea, and then go for it, using every bit of agility and skill to be a tiny bit of exhilarated human flotsam.
We slip imperceptibly from 2013 to 2014. Although, conventionally, it is a time for new starts, resolutions, reviewing and anticipating, in reality nothing changes any more at this particular midnight hour than at any other. The 13th century Zen philosopher Dogen argued that time is a passageless passage as one state of being flows into the next. Time is not something that happens - for, if it were, we would only perceive it in the gaps between events. Nor can it be a fixed, structural feature of the objective world (thank you, Einstein) but only a way in which our senses order experience (thank you, Kant). Dogen sees 'time' as the name we give to that continuous flow of being.
Hence the candle. Like wax, we soften, shift, mould round events and people, move on. At certain times, as now, we - unpausing in our flow - try to take stock, re-evaluate, re-formulate our dreams, learn to live with, or rectify, the things we most regret. Yet, like it or not, we take it all with us as we move on. Happy New Year!