Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos. 1- Chaos.

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)


Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’.  The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths.  They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)

Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility.  Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’.  She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings.  ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3)  On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)

Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture.  It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)

I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought.  She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos.  In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum.  Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.

Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.

In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)

The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology.  Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere.  Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born?  I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition 'Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family." IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition ‘Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family.” IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties.  Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems.  At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws.  Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions.  Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.

Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship.  Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62).  I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.

This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7).  Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul.  Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings.  Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here).  The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.

The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world.  Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term.  It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species.  Harmonia!

B.T. 6th December 2016.

Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.


(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.

(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.

(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.

(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.

(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.

(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.

(7) Simon Crook, 2015.  A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.



Entanglements in an Anthropocentric World -Thom van Dooren on Crows and Hospitality.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo KI Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

House Crow (Corvus splendens), Tirunelvedi, India. Photo K. Hari Krishnan, Creative Commons.

Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances‘. -Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways.

Twice on recent walks I’ve encountered older men who evidently thought I was one of their kind.  Although I am older than Jeremy Corbin and do use a walking pole when out on the hills -not least to test the depth of sphagnum bog or peaty puddles- it soon became clear to me on both occasions that I was talking across a cultural chasm.  Both men seemed desperate to vent suppressed fury, and launched into worrying diatribes.

The first encounter, which occured shortly after the British electorate had voted -by a narrow majority in an ill-conceived referendum- to leave the European Union, was with a man I’ve often shared wildlife news with.  He told me he’d voted to leave, and proclaimed, rather dramatically, that “we need someone who’ll give the bastards a good kicking”.  The second encounter was with a dog walker who approached me when I sat down to have a snack.  My new ‘friend’ began by reminiscing about his alcoholic father, but soon embarked upon an account of the Second World War, which, in his view, we only got involved in ‘because some idiot had decided to invade the poor Germans’.

These unsettling cameos seem consistent with the 42% spike in reported racist hate crime in the two weeks before and after the referendum (see here).  And, of course, a week before the referendum the country was shaken by the appalling murder of Jo Cox, a Labour M.P. with an impressive record as a humanitarian activist.  A fund set up in her memory raised £1 million in three days for Hope Not Hate (an anti-extremist charity), the R.V.S. (who care for elderly people), and White Helmets (Syrian search and rescue volunteers).(1)

I’m writing this on a warm early September morning with the window open, but can’t see or hear any House Martins.  Local birders report that they’ve had a bad year, so I’ve been looking out for the larger groups that should be gathering in preparation for their autumn migration.  I don’t know what multispecies stories underly this disruption, but in a period of unprecedented anthropogenic species loss, one of many concerns about ‘Brexit’ is that we have a farming minister who has described key E.U. environmental legislation (the Birds and Habitat directives) as ‘spirit crushing’.(2)


In the current issue of Environmental Humanitiesa thought provoking open access journal, Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose ponder the writing and thinking practices that inform their research on species extinctions.  In an article entitled Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds they invoke Emma Restall Orr’s notion of “the relational awakeness” of the world and elaborate an approach ‘grounded in an attentiveness to the evolving ways of life (or ethea, singular ethos) of diverse forms of human and nonhuman life, and in an effort to explore and perhaps restory the relationships that constitute and nourish them’.  Their vision of ecological animism attends to a world ‘woven through with co-forming patterns of responsiveness, attention, desire, and communication.’

The authors illustrate their approach with a series of ethographic vignettes from ‘sites of entanglement’ involving Hawaiian monk seals, lava fields, lichen, and alalā, or Hawaiian crows.  Although the latter are regarded by some humans as aumakua, or ancestral deities, the focus of van Dooren and Rose’s ‘art of witness’ is very much on ecological realities rather than engagements with a spirit world.  Despite my strong interest in the subtle dimensions of inter-species relationship I can see that, in some contexts, such issues might distract from urgent discussions about species loss and nonhuman agency -and in any case wholeheartedly endorse van Dooren and Rose’s concern to ’embrace the ethical call others make upon us in the meaningfulness of their lives and deaths’. (my italics) (3).

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis. Plate Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Hawaiian Crow, Corvus Hawaiiensis.  Mammology and Ornithology, Atlas. Cassin J, 1858. Philadephia, C Sheerman, Creative Commons.

Thom van Dooren’s work appeals to me because he writes extensively, as an environmental philosopher and anthropologist, about birds.  In Flight Ways (4) he fleshes out Val Plumwood’s notion of human exceptionalism in relation to the lived experience of species such as Laysan and Black Footed Albatrosses, Oriental, Long-billed, and Slender-billed Vultures, and Whooping Cranes, that face the possible extinction of their kind.  When vultures disappear, for example, what Deborah Rose calls a ‘doubling’ of death occurs as the ecological connections and entanglements necessary for life are unmade.

In two recent articles Thom van Dooren writes about two very different species of crow.  In one he discusses the predicament of the Hawaiian Crow, or alalā (Corvus Hawaiiensis), a bird which has been extinct in the wild since 2002.  Van Dooren explores some complex questions that arise around a captive breeding programme in which two small extant populations survive, focussing on ecologists’ attempts to ensure that despite the inevitable loss of vocal repertoire/vocabulary/animal cultures by captive birds, released alalā behave ‘authentically’ (e.g. eat forest fruits rather than forage amongst human garbage).

One informant tells him that released birds are not really alalā at all.  Hawks no longer respect them.  They have become a different species.  Van Dooren responds by questioning notions of fixed and essential species identity.  Building upon Val Plumwood’s call to reconceptualise evolution in a way that respects nonhuman agency, he argues that behaviour is a relational and developmental achievement.  ‘As crows around the world move into cities and learn new ways of life, they conduct experiments in emergent forms of crowness’.

He goes on to suggest that ethical relations between humans and other animals might require ‘careful and deliberate forms of detachment’, respectful distance, a ‘paradoxical absent presence’.  Humans need learn to ask ‘what kinds of relationships and forms of life are crows themselves interested in taking up?'(5)  Although I’m wary of social theories that rely on analogies between human and other-than-human ‘natures’ and ‘cultures’, the parallels here with, for instance, Rogerian client-centred counselling amongst humans, are intriguing.  In Flight Ways (pp133-142) van Dooren cites research documenting the ability of corvids to show empathy, and it seems, to grieve.  What is being lost in the forests of Hawaii, then, may well be an other-than-human culture that includes ways of grieving -for so many deaths, for the loss of a way of life, and perhaps for an entire species.  Yet amongst human cultures the passing of a nonhuman species is rarely marked or mourned.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

House Crow Feeding Chicks, photo Emanjsr2611, Creative Commons.

In another recent article Thom Van Dooren directs our attention towards the complex realities of a crow species that may, just possibly, have earned its bad reputation, and of the magnitude and effects of power within late modern/global capitalist human societies.  The Unwelcome Crows, hospitality and the anthropocene (6) tells the story of a small group of about thirty five to forty House Crows, a species from the Indian subcontinent, that had set up home in Hoek van Holland.  House Crows have proved themselves to be adept at stowing away on ocean going ships, and are now quite widely dispersed.  Their ‘invasion’ of Europe has not been taken lightly however, and the Dutch authorities launched an eradication programme based on fears that they would damage crops, threaten other species, and spread disease, apparently without first undertaking a detailed study of the birds.

Thom van Dooren’s visit to the location prompted him to reflect on conceptions of hospitality and to write that that the arrival of strangers ‘is always haunted … grounded in specific pasts and futures, imagined and/or lived’.  The attempted eradication of these avian invaders is juxtaposed against the operations of the gargantuan port of Rotterdam, just across the river, characterised by van Dooren as ‘a key driver, an engine, of the Anthropocene’.  Seven days a week, day and night, ships arrive and depart.  ‘This is how old growth forests become floorboards, how we are able to keep burning fossil fuels at low prices’.  How dirty industries, toxic materials, and carbon emission responsibilities, are outsourced to unseen corners of distant lands.  Rather than blaming a singular ‘humanity’ for all of this ‘we’ need to ‘open up the question of who it is that is marking and appropriating the world at our present time’.  Van Dooren pithily comments that ‘here, at the epicentre of our remaking of the world to suit our designs and whims, the lives of forty crows could not be tolerated’.

He then ponders the ability of jackdaws to get on with the new arrivals, and how humans might have responded differently, by moving beyond the ‘logic of the host’, with its appropriative claim. ‘What is needed … is an entirely new frame of orientation: an acknowledgement that the world and its future were never ours -never any individual or group’s- to give in the first place, to welcome or not.’  In multispecies worlds lives inescapeably overlap.  ‘My house, my body, are always already others’ territories too …. [  ] … alter-territorialities are possible’.  Which brings me back to my own recent unsettling human encounters, played out, of course, against the appalling backdrop of an epic migration crisis in which thousands of our fellow human beings are dying as they attempt to reach the shores of Europe.


11th September 2016.


(1) The Killing of Jo Cox, Wikipedia.  (accessed 1/9/16).

(2) Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit crushing’ green directives, says minister,  The Guardian, 30th May 2016.

(3) Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, Lively Ethography, Storying Animist Worlds,  Environmental Humanities 8:1 (May 2016).

(4) Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways, Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014.

(5) Thom van Dooren, Authentic Crows; Identity, Captivity, and Emergent Forms of Life, Theory, Culture, and Society, 2016 Vol 33 (2) 29-52.

(6) Thom van Dooren, The Unwelcome Crows; hospitality in the anthropocene, Journal of Theoretical Humanities, vol21 no2 June 2016.  This article is available here (you can register as an independent researcher).

Environmental Humanities

Thom van Dooren – Encountering Crows

Roots Left Hanging in the Air


The past few weeks have been quite intense.  Another flood ravaged the Calder Valley on Boxing Day -we were told that the floods in June 2012, and July 2013(!), were exceptional events, but this was worse- with unprecedented river levels, and extensive damage to homes, businesses, and historical infrastructure.  Chunks of canal bank ripped away.  Mudslides.  And in the small Clough (a wooded side valley) that I’ve been visiting for more than forty years, another mature oak has came down.

Richard Mabey reminds us that plants have more than twenty different senses. “Entire forests are linked by an underground “wood wide web” of fungal “roots” that transport and balance nutrient flows and carry signals about disease and drought throughout the network”. (more here)   The entire Clough now resembles a tree graveyard, towered over by mature Beeches, planted by our Victorian forbears.  A virulent fungal infection is now spreading amongst these, and some have fallen.  Pausing by the newly exposed roots of the latest casualty -the ripped cables of the ‘wood wide web’- I wondered what kind of chorus of alarm must have reverberated along the valley.


I was, no doubt, particularly attuned to the fate of that Oak, because Chris, a close friend, and fellow member of the meditation group that celebrated the seasonal festivals for five years during the late 80’s and early 90’s, died just before the Winter Solstice.  After a three week hiatus, I was privileged to be able to read a passage from his 1995 thesis, on Ecology and Postmodernity, at his funeral yesterday.  The event is far too ‘open’ to write about yet, of course.  Suffice it to day that funerals can be powerfully life-affirming rites.

Chris was well aware that his writing took place in an extravagantly abundant living world, and was delighted to hear about the following small incident that occured when I was reading another passage some years ago.  In a section entitled ‘Facing the Danger’ he talked about “the need to apprehend, to listen, to open oneself to the unhuman Other, to stop the interpreting, to feel, to identify with” and argued that ” in these encounters there is a sort of presence at work”. […] What is forgotten by cultural theory is “the void, the darkness, the concealment from which all unconcealment arises, [… ] an alterity (or otherness) […] whose nearest figures are silence, darkness, void, negativity and absolute limit”.  At that point I noticed a tiny orange mite crawling across the page, neatly underlining the concluding line, which read: “ecological sensibility reminds us, above all, of the smallness of the lighted clearing in which we (all of us, even the literate human ones) come to presence.”

Bon Voyage Chris, and May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You!

B.T. 12/1/16.

Chris Drinkwater (1995) Ecology and Postmodernity, PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, pp195-6.






Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.


(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

Subtle Bodies, a book review.

L0043615 Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm taken from I-tsung chiu-chien, 'The Golden Mirror of Medicine' a compendium of medical works edited by Wu Chien and first published in 1742 19th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Acupuncture points and meridians: the arm.  I-tsung chiu-chien, ‘The Golden Mirror of Medicine’, edited by Wu Chien, 1742.  Wellcome Library, Creative Commons

Although my occasional full bodied roars drew complaints from accountants in the office upstairs, my acupuncturist agreed that it was a good way to release energy.  I found the needles quite helpful, though sometimes difficult (they tend to be more uncomfortable when you need them most).  But however warm the welcome, I felt a slight sense of disjuncture going into a setting shaped by a cosmology and symbol system from the other side of the world.  As an astrologer I worked with four elements, not five, and had a different model of seasonal/energetic change.  That said, I’m generally drawn to eclectic, syncretic, and plural approaches (up to a point), rather than narrowly singular traditions.  Even the Western medical herbalist I went to used to read my pulses in the Chinese style.

It seems that Eastern cosmologies, and associated therapeutic, meditation, and magical practices involving variously conceived subtle bodies, were enthusiastically adopted on the margins of Western culture during the ‘early Modernist period’ (1880-1930).  The term ‘subtle body’ was introduced by the Theosophists, initially as a translation of suksmasarira, a key concept in Vedanta philosophy.  In the work of Samkara (who lived aound 800 CE) it formed part of a series of three bodies -the material or physical, subtle, and causal bodies.  Various Theosophists went on to proposed a series of ‘higher’ bodies including astral, mental, causal, and etheric, corresponding to ‘higher planes’ of existence and progressively finer materiality.

Despite scholarly discomfort with its Theosophical origins, and subsequent popularisation in the West, Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors of Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, Between mind and body find ‘subtle body’ a useful generic term.  Their book works well as a resource on the genealogy of related concepts, covering Daoist, Indian, Tibetan, Shamanic, and Buddhist traditions, before moving on to Sufism, Neoplatonism, neo-shamanism/magical consciousnesss (Susan Greenwood), and a multitude of Western borrowings in art and culture.  The editors’ argument that subtle-body concepts ‘assume a quasi-material level of human functioning … intermediate between conventional concepts of body and mind’ is picked up by several authors who consider them as a way of overcoming Cartesian dualism.  This, and Samuel and Johnston’s claim that ‘subtle body language can open up our picture of the individual to include relationship with others’, suggests that subtle bodies may be a missing conceptual link in current debates around ‘new’ animism?

Crystal Addey discusses the neoplatonic concept of ‘vehicle of the soul’, ochema pneuma, as a bridge between soul and body.  The practice of theurgy -‘god work’-  combining ethical behaviour with contemplative and meditative practices (purification of powers of perception and ‘imagination’ to facilitate visions of, and from, the gods) were designed to enable the adept to become godlike.  Although religion and ritual was about ‘a lifelong endeavour of moral development’ and active involvement in the world, Neoplatonism has a strongly transcendental orientation.  Over identification with matter was said (by Hierocles) to weigh the soul down with ‘material stains and pollution’.  Nevertheless some of the neoplatonic material on divination is interesting.

Angela Sumegi juxtaposes a shamanic sense that other worlds are real, and accessible by means of soul or spirit journeys, with the Buddhist doctrine of no-soul or no-self, anatman.  She defines shamanism as ‘grounded in an animistic world view and involving distinctive practices that focus on the ability of certain individuals to … [mediate] between culturally accepted dimensions of the world in response to the needs of a particular group’.  It thrives where there is a belief that the world and its beings are constituted of visible and invisible dimensions.

Communication with unseen aspects depends on assistance from spirit persons, and takes place primarily through alternate states of consciousness including trance, possession, and dream or waking visions.  Deceased Mongolian shamans, or ongons, and other spirits, are said to travel along well defined pathways with rest stops along the way, often by a special tree or mountain pass. Mongolian death rituals apparently include a ‘bone carrying person’ who wears his clothes and hat inside out or back to front, and sprinkles offerings at crossroads or streams.

‘From a shamanic perspective, the spirit or soul of a thing signifies its most fundamental mode of existence, its being in relation’.  Thus, Sumegi sees shamanic soul theory as a way of personalising every aspect of human existence (rather than as an acknowledgement that other-than-human beings are persons).  By contrast, Buddhist practitioners aim to realise the essencelessness or illusory nature of persons and things, though Tibetan Buddhist subtle body concepts, including the dream body, illusory body, and rainbow body (purified from dualistic habit patterns), and the Mahayana theory of the three bodies of the Buddha, ‘express the primordial personhood of the most sublime state of liberation’.

Janet Chawla’s chapter on The life-bearing body in dais’ birth imagery considers the ethno-medical knowledge, body imagery, cosmological understandings, and practices of India’s traditional midwives or dais.  These lower caste or out-caste women ‘serve the poorest of the poor -and have always been concerned with embodiment not enlightenment’. Their birth work is often regarded by privileged Indians with ‘an exaggerated colonial disdain’.  One of their practices involves retaining the umbilical cord, partly so that it can be heated in order to revive an apparently lifeless baby.  The cord is considered to contain channels/naari through which jee or life-force flows.

Chawla discusses the ‘geo-mysticism’ associated with the female ‘deity/demon’ Bemata, who lives deep within the earth narak -commonly translated as ‘hell’.  As ruler of that domain she’s repsonsible for the conception, birth, and growth, of humans as well as all vegetation and animal life.  Reclaiming the work of the dais involves re-valuing the underground, unseen, cthonic realm – lowest of the three realms in both textual Hinduism and folk culture (below the mundane/earthly/visible, and the celestial).  Their conception of narak allows for the mapping of the unseen, inner world of the body … and also facilitates negotiation with the spirit world’.

Geoffrey Samuel concludes the book with an attempt to model subtle body concepts in universal terms, suggesting they may be about ‘barely conscious drives and desires … the impulses below or beyond individuals’ conscious awareness’, and how to control these.  They may also relate to our social and ecological context.  He attempts to steer between naive materialism and naive idealism, treating the subtle body as relational, constructed, but nevertheless real and ‘capable of being grounded in our best current sense of neurophysiology’.  This still sounds like materialism to me, so I like it less than his inclusive curiosity and acknowledgment of the importance of openness to the experiences of those who have, or claim to have, worked with subtle body processes.  Susan Greenwood, in a reworking of material about her shamanic journeying in the form of an owl, is the only contributor writing from direct subjective experience.

There’s a lot more, but this is quite an expensive hardback (to date), and my copy, obtained through inter-library loans (use public libraries or lose them!) is due back tomorrow, so I’ll have to close there with a recommendation to read some of this for yourself.

B.T. 1/7/15

Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, eds. Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, between mind and body, Routledge, 2013.

Note excerpts can be browsed online using Google Books.

Life Through a Lens.

Bird's Eye Primrose

Bird’s Eye Primrose

I sometimes find that photography gets in the way of just’being there’.   I’ve never wanted to take photographs of birds, for example.  When I’m with birds I want to give them my full attention rather than fiddling with a camera.  At other times, however, photography can feel contemplative, even divinatory.  “The Greek expression phainomenon … comes from the verb phainesthai, meaning “to show itself”.  Thus phainomenon means what shows itself, the self-showing, the manifest.  Phainesthai itself is a “middle voice” construction of phaino, to bring into daylight, to place in brightness.” (1)  Photography as phenomenology becomes a way of attending to beings, shown, or showing themselves, in light.

Bleadched Yew Root Holding Limestone Rock.

Bleadched Yew Root Holding Limestone Rock.

This is one of a number of bleached yew roots that I keep going back to.  They have an almost animal muscularity (with tendrils still gripping chunks of limestone) that suggests something about the nature of their living kin.  Here are some more images without further words.  Clicking on them brings up a larger version.

Rock Rose

Rock Rose

Ants Nest in Weathered Yew Root

Ants Nest in Weathered Yew Root

Reeds in Lake.

Reeds in Lake.

Beach Limestone

Beach Limestone

Tawny Owl Feather

Tawny Owl Feather

ScotsPine Gargoyle

ScotsPine Gargoyle

Brian Taylor, 15/6/15.

(1) David Farell Krell, ed.  Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, Routledge, 1978/1993.

End of Life Experiences; Two Books by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick

Tree Woman, Coloured Sketch, Peter Goode.

Coloured Sketch, P.G.

A research study based on interviews with nurses, doctors, and carers in two hospices and one nursing home in London found that profoundly meaningful ‘end of life experiences’ were not uncommon.  Peter Fenwick, Hilary Lovelace, and Sue Brayne, conclude that the subjective experiences of people who are dying, and phenomena that occur around death, need to be taken seriously if we are to develop best practice in spiritual end-of-life care.

Amongst the end-of-life experiences commonly reported are visions of deceased relatives (or friends) sitting on or next to the patient’s bed providing emotional warmth and comfort (64% and 54% in retrospective and prospective studies), visions of relatives or ‘religious figures’ who appear to ‘collect’ the dying person (62% and 48%), a sense of transitioning between this world and another reality (33% and 48%), dreams or visions in which the person feels comforted and prepared for death (62% and 50%), a sense of being called or pulled by someone or something (56% and 57%), the symbolic appearance of a significant bird, animal, or insect near the time of death (45% and 35%), light surrounding or near the dying person (often seen by therapists), relatives or friends being ‘visited’ by them at the time of death (55% and 48%), and synchronic occurances such as clocks stopping or lights coming on.  The prevailing scientific view, however, has been that ELE’s, especially deathbed visions, ‘have no intrinsic value, and are either confusional or drug induced.'(1)

Although Peter Fenwick, a renowned neuropsychiatrist, is no critical or post- psychiatrist, he clearly realises the importance of taking what people say seriously, not least when many respondents feared they would be thought mad if they talked about their visions.  His writings therefore cast some interesting light on an important but culturally neglected area of human experience.  I’m reminded of the work of Marius Romme and Sandra Escher on voice hearing (which challenged the medicalisation of madness) and, to some extent, Stanislas Grof on perinatal and transpersonal experience (but see note 1).

In the first of two books (co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Fenwick, a writer on health issues) Peter Fenwick reviews some 350 responses to a questionnaire sent to people who responded to his media appearances.  Although the main features described in Near Death Experiences -passing along a tunnel towards a welcoming and compassionate light, meeting beings of ‘light’, a momentary but somehow panoramic life review, coming to a barrier of some kind where a decision is made, and returning to the physical body- have become quite well known, only 2% of Fenwick’s respondents had previously heard of N.D.E’s.  For most, their Near Death Experience was a spiritual awakening in a broad and universal sense.

The accounts of N.D.E’s presented in this and other studies (cited here) do, nevertheless, show considerable individual and cultural variation.  For example, American studies report many more appearances by Jesus and by angels, whilst a study of Indian experiences showed that most people there were collected by Yamraj, the messenger of the Hindu god of death, rather than by deceased relatives.  Some Western individuals, however, met figures from Eastern cultures -and had their religious horizons broadened as a result.  For one woman the welcoming presence was a tree.

Most of the accounts were intensely autobiographical, but a few people were ‘shown glimpses of the past or of the future on a more cosmic scale’.  One man who could see Peterborough cathedral and small W’s of swans flying across the sky as he waited for an operation, but then suffered a coronory thrombosis followed by cardiac arrest and was rushed into Intensive Care, felt himself “become weightless several times and float up into the sky” where he joined the swans as a “very junior member of their family group”.  During some of these flights he was aware that the cathedral had not been built yet.  “It was as though the fens were in a primeval state”.  He saw men in medieval dress punting on the great meres, and the cathedral being built. “I felt as if I had existed forever, my being and ‘soul’ had been this way before.” (Fenwick 1996 pp131-2)

Cultural variation could be taken to show that such experiences are socially constructed in much the same way as dreams, but of course, otherworlds might also be constructed in ways that make them familiar and welcoming – congruent with the expectations, needs, and understandings of new arrivals.  Intriguingly, 38% of respondents met someone ‘on the other side’ who was still alive.  Does this mean that their experiences were ‘just dreams’?  Shortly after the death of her mother, a Japanese woman dreamt that she was standing in the middle of a river with her parents on either side.  Her mother was beckoning her father to cross, but he didn’t.  Although, in keeping with Japanese Buddhist symbolism, the barrier between worlds often takes the form of a river in Japanese N.D.E accounts, this woman had been brought up a Christian with no knowledge of Buddhism, and no recollection of hearing about the river symbolism. (we are not told whether she’d heard about the Styx though).

Given the intensely subjective and emotional nature of these experiences I was not entirely suprised to see that 78% of respondents were women.

In the Fenwicks’ second book, which reports findings from the study of London health professionals and carers, the concept of a journey emerges as a central theme.  The other world which people visit has a quality of absolute reality, but in the case of ‘deathbed visions’ it is as though ‘this world and the other reality overlap, dissolving into each other so that both can be experienced at once’. (2008 p44)  The dying person is rarely confused by this, is usually aware that not everyone can see what they can see, and may conduct separate simultaneous conversations with this-worldy and other-worldly visitors.  Given the importance of sorting out unfinshed business, it’s interesting that many carers report that two or three days before a death a room often becomes extremely peaceful and dominated by feelings of love, as though the process of death somehow sets up conditions that facilitate the resolution of personal conflict.  For me this (along with various phenomena mentioned in other accounts) raises questions about the agency and power of other-worldly people vis-a-vis this worldly affairs.

There are fairly brief discussions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mythological themes, Jungian archetypes, quantum entanglement, and the notion of extended and inter-connected mind.  I couldn’t help noticing some tension between two authorial voices -within Peter Fenwick I suspect.  One regards ghosts and mediumship as ‘tiger country for scientists’, writes that most of us ‘cling to this pale ghost … like a child with its comfort blanket’, persists in referring to visions as hallucinations even where the person is lucid (and despite instances where a vision is shared by other people), and eagerly anticipates ‘a body of homespun Western mystics becoming available for study’, whilst another is open-mindedly empathetic and, for example, regards co-incidence as a simplistic explanation for many of these phenomena.  I was also concerned that the authors’ perspective veered towards over-valuing the transcendental.  Their work, nonetheless, constitutes a significant challenge to cultural amnesia, and to insititutional resistance against respecting intimate subjective experience.

I’ll close by quoting from a contribution from a woman describing her sister’s death: “I saw a fast moving ‘Willo-the-wisp’ appear to leave her body from the side of her mouth on the right. The shock and beauty of it made me gasp.  It appeared like a fluid or gaseous diamond, pristine, sparkly, and pure, akin to the view from above of an eddy in the clearest pool you can imagine.”

B.T 26/4/15

Note 1: Unlike Peter Fenwick, Stanislas Grof developed an intensive ‘therapeutic’ method, inclduing controversial experimental work with LSD.


(1) Fenwick, P et al, (2009) Comfort for the Dying: five year retrospective and one year prospective studies of end of life experiences. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2009.10.004

Fenwick, P (2004) Dying, a Spiritual Experience as shown by Near Death Experiences and Deathbed Visions. (accessed 17/3/15).

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E (1996) The Truth in the Light, An Investigation of over 300 Near-Death Experiences, White Crow Books.

Fenwick, P and Fenwick, E. (2008) The Art of Dying, London, Bloomsbury.

Fenwick P. (2012) Dr Peter Fenwick Discusses Dying, Death, and Survivial, Interview by White Crow Books: