Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

The world religions which have a monastic element tend to emphasise simplicity. However, these are often also religions where there’s an aspect of rejecting or overcoming this material world in favour of spirit. One of the things I’ve always liked about Paganism is the soulful embracing of the physical that goes with nature based religion. Questions of simplicity and complexity do not look the same from a Pagan perspective.

Nature is complex and often gloriously inefficient – evolution wanders forward, and while the longstanding form of the shark may seem graceful and enduring, if they stop swimming about, they drown. Pandas. Everything about pandas demonstrates how evolution can and will take bizarre and complicated routes. Then there’s the issues of food chains and eco systems – subtle and complex webs of interdependence. Where there is life, there’s complexity.

We humans have an observable appetite for it. Our urges to create, to play, to invent and imagine demonstrate that simplicity doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be imagined, taught, created through discipline and given value. I think many ills can be traced back to this – people forced to live narrow, boring, predictable, grinding lives tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to give existence some breadth and depth.

Many years ago, I minored in psychology, and became aware of the relationship between complexity and child development. Children need environments that stimulate their senses, but don’t overload them. Sound, touch, smell, sight – whatever is available to you needs something to chew on in early childhood to develop as a human. The same is also true of baby rats, and no doubt all other mammals too. We are not designed for bland or sterile environments but for spaces vibrant with life, possibility, danger and wonder.

As Pagans we know that if you spend time in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement, sound and colour in most parts of the world. A still, silent environment is dead, and probably human. And at the other extreme, the maddeningly over-stimulating environment is also human, because we don’t know when to stop. Rush hour traffic, multi-screen leisure time, noise and light pollution – we’ve become rather adept at creating forms of complexity that make us sick.

We need complexity and stimulation, we suffer when faced with either too little, or too much. The question, as always, is one of balance. We need the kind of complex things to think about and interact with that uplift us – be that the glorious chaos of wild places, a chess game or an opera. Complexity is life, and life is complex. Given any chance to question what we’re doing and I think most of us know what’s too much. We develop skills to tune out, to not see or hear so as to avoid information overloads. The answer is not to keep doing that, but to do something better where we can.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

  • Rick Finney

    Lots to think about here. Your mention of the instinct toward the often sterile simplicity found in monastic traditions reminds me of something that a Tibetan Buddhist teacher I admire, a British laywoman, once said about “awakening” — that if it can’t be found in the marketplace, it’s unlikely to be found in a monastery. That view of things has stayed with me ever since I first heard it.

  • whiterabbitanimation

    I wonder if the simplicity of monastic life is precisely to find a balance between the often abstract, dense and challenging teachings that people who elect for this approach to spiritual practice work with..? I agree with the comment above in so far that I also feel there is no single approach, practice or condition required (for awakening…)

  • juliebond

    I’d like to raise a hand in favour of simplicity. Nature is very complex, and we are all complex beings on many levels. Simplicity is more something we do rather than something we are. It’s more about our consumption nowadays, I think. We will always be complex beings; that’s what we are. But if we don’t live simply future generations of humans and other creatures simply won’t be able to live.

    • Nimue Brown

      I’m a great believer in sustainable living, and a more realistic approach to material goods is clearly needed, but a person can be very sustainable and live in really involved and interesting ways. Re-use, upcycling, passing on, using complex social webs to redistribute things to where they are most needed can also be an answer.

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