Tag Archives: Brendan Myers

The Circle of Life is Broken – a review

My only complaint about this book is that the title suggests a far more depressing read than is actually the case. I should have known better – Brendan Myers isn’t the kind of philosopher to succumb to despair. It is of course a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable book, but there is also lyrical writing driven by a passion for life and existence, a book written to try and express possible ways forward.

For anyone looking for ways to think about the climate crisis, and to think about what they personally might be able to do, this is a good book to read. There are no glib answers here, there’s no sure fire quick fix and there is a lot of analysis of things that have already been tried and that failed. There’s also an enlightening history of ecological science which will help anyone not experienced in that field to better understand the ways in which we talk about the world and how that impacts on our responses to the crisis. Brendan also explores the kinds of psychological factors and human-created pressures acting on us to keep us where we are, with all the disastrous implications.

I particularly appreciated the way Brendan has tackled both the history and current manifestations of eco-fascism. Hate, as he points out, is not going to save anything or anyone. However, there is a lot of eco-fascism out there and like most kinds of fascism, it often seems persuasive to people at a surface level. The classist, racist, eugenics-oriented aspects don’t reveal themselves at first glance. Any argument that involves blaming poor people for existing will lead us into this territory and it is so important to be alert to where that thinking goes and how harmful it is.

For anyone into philosophy, and anyone who wants material to reflect on, this book has a great deal to offer. It is an invitation to engage, to contemplate, and ultimately, to act. Heartily recommended.

More on the publisher’s website https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/earth-spirit-circle-life-broken

Positive affirmations that could really make a difference

Positive affirmation has come to mean little mantras and memes we repeat to ourselves to help us feel better about things. I tend to find them hollow and unhelpful. It’s worth repeating a thought form when I am trying to change myself – it is ok to rest- for example. Too often what we ask positive affirmations to do is replace what isn’t otherwise coming to us. The universe loves me. I am valued. I am good and my life is worthwhile.

I think about the people (I’ve been one of them) who in times of stress apologise for existing. We’re sorry that we take up space and carbon, that we breathe and eat. To feel this way, I have realised, you have to be convinced that you are not entitled to exist. We don’t get there on our own and we don’t get out of it on our own either.

I’ve read two books by Brendan Myers in the last six months or so that have really got me thinking about these issues. (Check him out, he’s a brilliant author). He talks about how we affirm each other and how those acts of affirmation make life good. When we share food, we affirm each other’s basic right to live. Every time people do something life affirming together, they affirm life, and each other.

There are a lot of things we do as a culture that don’t affirm life. Pressure to diet and all forms of body shaming. Denying each other rest in order to work more. Favouring screens over direct human contact. Using sex as a weapon. Increasingly we treat the sick, the elderly, refugees, the vulnerable as figures and not humans. We have a culture of not affirming each other’s right to live and not affirming each other’s humanity and I think it’s getting worse.

No amount of saying ‘I am beautiful’ will counter the effects of living in a culture where that beauty is seen as a commodity for others to use.

The idea that emotional and mental health are personal issues is widespread and I think part of the problem. We are to create our own realities and be impervious to the realities around us – and what a cold, isolating world we would have if we managed it! And how crazy we would have to make ourselves to hang on to tiny bubbles of personal reality like that.

We can choose to go the other way. Not muttering to ourselves that life is good and we are loveable as we are, but saying those same things to other people. You are valued. You are loved. To hug each other as an expression of physical acceptance. To share food with those who are around us, with those who need it. To affirm the right of people to live by rejecting the politics of throwing the vulnerable to the wolves. Avoiding beating each other to death with deadlines. There are so many things we can do for each other, to be kinder, and to affirm each other’s humanity and right to exist.

It means collective responsibility. It means not seeing broken health as the fault of the person suffering. It means making an effort to care for each other, rather than jealously guarding what time and energy we have. It means it is not enough to be personally ok if people around you are suffering. It means having higher standards, and a bit of idealism.

More than this, if we start affirming each other, we affirm that life is worth living. It is a declaration that life is worth having, and that which is alive merits treating with care. As a Pagan, I hold life as sacred. I don’t think I’m alone in this. We can affirm that life itself is worth something. Sure, you can spend time gazing into a mirror telling your reflection that you are beautiful and the universe loves you (I’ve seen it recommended) or you can try telling people they are valued. One of these things will make far more difference than the other.

Ways to live – a trio of reviews

It occurs to me that all three things I’m reviewing this week have explicit things to offer about how we live, and how we might need to rethink how we live. All three things could be discussed from an array of other angles, but I’m going to run with this common thread…

Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear, by Brendan Myers. An epic and at the same time accessible philosophical book about how to live well and fully. It really is a handbook for life, and challenges us to explore 22 different forms of relationship and re-imagine ourselves in light of how we can live out those relationships in more meaningful ways. Each one of those 22 chapters was totally fascinating, and rewarding to read. Every chapter gave me things to wonder about and new ideas to play with. It’s a practical, inspiring book full of details – history, philosophy, popular culture, all manner of studies into all kinds of things plus the author’s many insights. A great read, and offering much to chew on, I can heartily recommend it.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/circles-of-meaning-labyrinths-of-fear


Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood – the anime adaptation of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, by Hiromu Arakawa. 64 episodes, with a complete and well plotted story. I could write you pages about the plot intricacies, and about the alchemy, but what really interested me was the importance of relationships in terms of getting things done. Threads of causality that come from how characters treat each other. The long term consequences of small gestures. It’s an expression of how big moments in history are made out of the actions of many, many people. A powerful tide for change can be created by lots of people all making a small move in the same direction. Themes around not giving up, not succumbing to despair, not accepting defeat in the face of overwhelming odds run through the story, but what’s key in keeping those themes alive is the two young central characters, who refuse to give up, and who refuse to let others give up either, and the wide reaching consequences this has.

I reviewed Crown Moon, by Anna McKerrow, last year (review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2015/07/20/eco-pagan-mythmaking/) and was delighted to be offered book 2 for review. I loved Crow Moon, but Red Witch is an even better book. Strong plot, strong characters, compelling magic, and a dark view of the future. This is a world in which we (the Redworlders) have burned most of the fuel and fought a long and brutal war over what little remains. We’re fracking, and letting the poor starve. The Red Witch of the title – Melz – comes from a little alternative enclave in the south west of England – Greenworld. It’s not however, a book of easy or comfortable morals. There’s good and bad in everyone. At the same time, a lot has gone wrong. Human relationships with power, energy and the land are at the heart of what has gone wrong, and the book is in many ways an invitation to get our shit together before it’s too late. How we treat those around us, how we give and withhold resources and information are contributors to the world we co-create.

More about the book here – http://www.annamckerrow.com/books.html

Everything we do is about relationship, and how we hold those relationships affects everything.

Loneliness and Revelation

I took Loneliness and Revelation – a modestly sized philosophical text by Brendan Myers – with me to a recent weekend Steampunk event. It turned out to be very apt reading. The main theme of the book is loneliness, which Brendan considers to be intrinsic to the human condition. Inside our own heads, each of us is separate and alone. There are some religious traditions that try and overcome this by making us one with everything, but as this book so usefully points out, if everything is one, you have a singular thing that still has every reason and opportunity to experience loneliness. That in many myths, the original creator god creates to deal with being alone, is well worth considering.

This is not, as a consequence, a book about how to never suffer loneliness again. It explores the things we can do to tackle our insularity – both the things that work, and the things that are popular, but don’t. There’s consideration of the ethical side of how we assert ourselves in the world, questions about how to live well and be happy alongside this issue of intrinsic loneliness. There’s a lot of reflection on the relationship between creativity and loneliness as well. Given the size of the book, it is broad and deep in ways that I really liked.

A big public gathering of some 4000 people, was in many ways the perfect setting for reading this. Steampunk is a very creative community, in which hours of work and great care and attention is lavished upon kits and creativity. People do this very specifically to be seen, to be noticed by others. The kit in turn gives permission to start conversations; it’s not just acceptable, but desirable to approach other Steampunks and compliment them on attire, artefacts and the like. Having spent some days in a space that encourages social contact between strangers really brought home to me how generally impossible it would be to walk up to a stranger in the street and start a conversation with them. In most spaces, loneliness is supported, not connection.

Expressing who we are in the world, by word and deed, is a big part of what Loneliness and Revelation explores. The power of manifesting something of who we are and having that seen, known and understood is something Brendan offers as key to overcoming loneliness. And yet modern human interactions push us in the exact opposite direction. Work uniforms, scripts for dealing with ‘clients’, with brands offered to us as self expression, and photo-shopped celebrity mistaken for being seen and recognised. It made me wonder how much online trolling comes from the basic need to be seen and heard, and a loss of any sense that this might have an ethical dimension to it.

That’s a very superficial bit of reflection on a very deep book. It’s changed me and influenced my thinking in ways I have not yet fully digested. There is much here about how to live and how to choose life, and I think it’s a book many people would benefit from reading. If you are the sort of person who likes to reflect and if you lead with the head, and favour a reasoned approach, this is a book that will help you think about how you are in the world, and how you want to be. It’s not always an easy or comfortable read, but if you are the sort of person who doesn’t need it all to be optimistic and upbeat, (and if you’re reading my blog, I rate the chances) you might well want to read this.

The Other Side of Virtue

I loved this book, it’s one I cheerfully recommend. I’m very happy today to be sharing an excerpt.

Overture to The Other Side of Virtue (O Books, 2008) by Brendan Myers

The story of Christian virtue begins with the story of Moses, the holy man who climbed the holy mountain to receive the Law. Like any system of ethics based on law, it was intended to separate right from wrong as clearly as possible. This is why most of them begin with ‘thou shall not’. Of course, the law forbids things that nearly everyone would agree do not belong in a civil society: thievery and murder, for instance. So on the face of it, there can be no objection. But we should be very cautious about taking up such a gift and accepting it without question. Such pre-packaged gifts are sometimes like the Trojan Horse. They often conceal all sorts of other problems and complications. In the case of the Ten Commandments, the problem is this: if you accept it, you effectively hand over to God the responsibility for determining what is right and wrong. Your only choice in life is whether to obey or to rebel—precisely the choice made by Eve, in the Garden of Eden.

The original idea of Virtue had nothing to do with Christianity. In Europe, it is older than the Gospels by more than six hundred years. Consider the origin of the word itself. It comes from two sources. The first is the Latin ‘Virtus’, itself rooted in the word ‘Vir’, meaning ‘man’. From this direction, Virtue means something like ‘manliness’, and implies ‘macho’ qualities like toughness and aggression. The other source is the Greek word ‘Arête’, which is sometimes directly translated as ‘Virtue’, but can also mean ‘Excellence’. Excellence is what happens when some quality or talent is perfected, completed, rendered praiseworthy and beautiful. It is what makes someone or something stand out as special, a cut or two above the ordinary, and deserving of special admiration. There is nothing passive about Excellence. Instead of modesty or humility, the logic of arête calls for active qualities like initiative, honour, and intelligence. It also implies a few half-moral, half-aesthetic qualities like nobility, strength, proper pride, beauty, and grace. And it implies various social qualities, like friendship, generosity, honesty, truthfulness, and love. Virtue ethics could be more properly called ‘Arêteology’, meaning an account (logos) of what is excellent (arête) in human affairs. This account describes not only the things someone does, but also the kind of person she is. And it had almost nothing to do with obeying laws. Laws were meant for the ordering of society; being a good person was something else. The questions of ethics, in the ancient world, would never have been: What laws or rules should I follow? Which of my choices creates the least harm, or the most benefit, for those it affects? Who am I to obey, and what gives him his authority? To a Virtuous person of the ancient world, those would have been the wrong questions. The right questions were: What kind of person should I be? What kind of life should I live? What is an excellent human being like? What must I do to be happy? The general answer to questions like these went like this. You have to produce within yourself a set of habits and dispositions, something like a ‘second nature’, which would give you full command over your powers and potentials. In other words, you have to transform your character. The ‘familiar’ side of virtue has to do with a predisposition to follow laws and commandments. The ‘other side’ asserts that who you are is much more important than the rules you follow, and at least as important as the things you do, when it comes to doing the right thing, and finding the worth of your life.

The Other Side of Virtue is about that original idea, and how it is intimately connected with what it is to be human, and what it means to live a worthwhile life. I show how it appeared in the heroic and classical cultures of ancient Europe. Then I show how it appeared again in various different historical movements that revived or patterned themselves after those ancient cultures. The Italian Renaissance, Romanticism in High Germany and in Merry Old England, are only the most well known examples. There are also contemporary movements afoot, such as modern-day Druidry and Wicca, which embody the original idea of Virtue in various eclectic ways. What all of these different movements seem to have in common is that in their own way they all expressed one or more of the following three primary ideas.

  1. First and foremost, life involves inevitable encounters with events that seem, at least at first, to impose themselves upon you. Fortune, nature, other people, and death itself, are among them.
  2. Second, these events also invite us to respond. The response generally involves the development of various human potentials and resources. Some of these are social, such as one’s family and friendship ties, and some are personal and internal, like courage and integrity.
  3. And third, that if we respond to these imposing events with excellence, and if the excellent response becomes habitual, they can be transformed into sources of spiritual meaning and fulfillment. This transformation opens the way to a worthwhile and flourishing life.

There are a few others, but these ones are the most important. If I had to gather them into one sentence, this is what I would say: Virtue is the ancient idea that excellence in human affairs is the foundation of ethics, spirituality, self-knowledge, and especially the worthwhile life. Self-knowledge blossoms first and foremost with adventurous transformations of our way of being in the world. The Immensity, as I shall call it, is the situation that calls upon us to make the choices which create those transformations. It is a situation that changes us. But since our choices are involved, this is the change that also configures us, creates us, and so makes us who we are. To answer the call to Know Yourself is not only to discover who and what you are, but also to become that which you discover yourself to be.

Find out more about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/other-side-of-virtue-the

Druidry old and new

Graeme made a very interesting point in the comments on my Becoming a Druid post – “For me it has always been a shorthand term for someone who learns what they can about ancestral Celtic spirituality and lives their lives in the here and now by those precepts.”

I’ve been pondering to what extent that would be true of me. I’ve spent a fair bit of time poking around reading history, and interpretations of history as part of my ‘becoming a druid’ process. I’m not a historian, and I feel what I do is much more about here and now, than anything that went before me. But, there are concepts that I think are historical in their source.

The single biggest influence on that score for me was Brendan Myers’ book ‘The Other Side of Virtue’ particularly where he looked at ideas of virtue in early heroic cultures. So not all of that was necessarily Celtic, although some is. The idea of living boldly, with style and colour, embracing life rather than being afraid of it, being wild, independent, loyal, passionate, creative, and honourable are all virtues I have come to associate with the Celts and therefore by extension with the Druids.

Things we know about the Druids – that they were the thinkers of their day, the scientists, healers, philosophers, historians and facilitators of justice and advisors to leaders. That certainly colours what I do and how I do it. What we know as a culture and species has changed a lot since then, but that gives me part of my sense of needing to be here and now, alive to contemporary ways of knowing and understanding.

We know that the bards of old also carried news, history, genealogy, and that their satires had political importance. They were more than ‘entertainment’ they were the soul of the community made manifest, and they also worked tremendously hard, like the Druids, committing a vast amount of material to memory. There’s another pointer towards learning, as well as diligence, dedication, and community.

Then there’s the whole worshipping in groves, what I’ve gleaned about Celtic deities, the sense of Druids as connected to the land, but also profoundly involved in culture and civilization – people with one foot in the wilderness and the other at human gatherings. I have a sense of historical druids as balancing between all the things that might be deemed polar opposites – sun and moon, nature and civilization, war and peace, life and death. They walked the edges and the inbetween places (I think.)

So that’s the historical aspect underpinning my perspective. I am also very conscious of its selective nature. No sacrifice of a bloody persuasion. A great deal of me going ‘this is how I understand it, and therefore how I apply it in a modern context’. It’s a subjective process, inevitably. My understanding that ancient cultures had to be far more co-operative than our modern one, points me in certain directions. But at the same time, the Celts of old seem to have had a very different attitude to death, war, feuding, and anything around violence to my own far more pacifist take. I am not them. But if they had continued, uninterrupted by Christianity, I’d be prepared to bet they wouldn’t be the same now either. The evolution of Christianity provides a model for that.

There’s a distinct arrogance in any claim to ‘know’ how the Celtic Druids would have evolved from there to here and in claiming to be doing it. Of course I hope I am. But none of us are never going to know that. I’d rather claim to be modern, and doing what makes sense to me, and not focus so much on the historical side. It means I can’t claim anything else much, and what I do will stand or fall based on whether it works, not where I got it from. That appeals to me.

(Thanks Graeme for the inspiration, I shall be on the lookout for a copy of your book)

Magic, fiction and paganism

Often in fiction, magic exists as a plot device, and alternative to science and a means to get things done. Sometimes, the mechanics are laid bare. Fictional magic often lacks mystery. Spell casting wizards whose magic is reliable if they say and do the right things are commonplace in fantasy. Psychic powers and magical attributes are usually well defined, predictable, reliable, and (to borrow from Red Dwarf) other words ending in ‘ible’.

As a pagan, my whole idea of magic is completely at odds with this. For me, the very essence of magic is mystery and wonder. I don’t perceive magic as an alternative to science either. I see them in far more complex relationship. That which we do not understand, is magic. That which we have an explanation for, is science, in terms of how humans deal with things. But science can engender wonder and a sense of the miraculous.

Brendan Myers defines magic as that which inspires awe (my books are in storage, I can’t do references!) I think this is a great place to start. The fireworks and thunderclaps of fantasy magic are no different from any other pyrotechnics. They inspire excitement perhaps, but not any sense of wonder.

In fiction, magic just isn’t magical very often.

The desire to explain, to pin down and regulate seems to be on the increase. We confuse understanding, with pinning a thing to a board. To understand a butterfly is to see it in flight, watch how it sits on a flower, to marvel at its colour. Pinning it to a board will help you define and quantify it, but destroys the butterfly. All the mechanical explanations in the world cannot really give you understanding of any complex thing. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, between figures and insight, between taking a thing apart and understanding how it works.

There are some authors who offer wonderful expressions of magic – Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Charles De Lint, Robert Holdstock, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett with his witches. There’s the whole genre of magical realism, inspired by pre-colonial ways of knowing the world – I’m not a huge fan of Salaman Rushdie, but he’s a fine example. Isabelle Allende is a personal favourite.

These are authors who write experiential magic, and who embrace the numinous. Magic is not, for them, a tidy and coherent system that works like a science or a technology. Magic is wild and wonderful, unruly and full of mystery. It does not explain itself. It will not sit down and tell you where it came from, how it works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Instead, it is the magic that transforms lives and brings inspiration.

There are a lot of people out there who perceive stage magic, fantasy magic, as the aspiration of actual pagans. They imagine that we want to be Harry Potter. They watch impossible, crazy things and understand that magic is impossible and unreal and not available to them. So much magic in fiction is actually taking away from people the idea that magic exists, by turning it into high fantasy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does Harry Potter style magic (I assume no one would admit it if they could), but if this vision of what magic means defines it in the public conscious, most people will understand it is not for them, and that only crazy people would seek for it.

Remystifying magic, re-enchanting it and bringing it back into a spiritual and meaningful context, would be an epic task. But not impossible. It’s just such a nuisance that Hollywood pyrotechnic pseudo-science goes round calling itself magic, when it’s about as unmagical as you can get.