Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why atheism?

It’s sort of become obligatory for those that are to say ‘Why I’m an atheist’ and I’m happy to oblige only in the hope that someone might be persuaded to the side of reason if wavering on the Occam’s razor of religion versus atheism. But I do have a problem as I’m not one of those ‘in your face’ atheists and I still hold to a certain take on spirituality – but as my first post shows – it is a belief in the indefatigable, infinite human spirit, not some remote transcendent immaterial omniscient spirituality.

As a four-year old my mother took me to Sunday school in the corrugated ‘tin’ covered Bethel Chapel in the village in which I was born and raised on an island in the Thames Estuary off the north Kent coast. (This makes me a ‘man of Kent’ – as opposed to a ‘Kentish man’ because they’re born west of the River Medway). I don’t remember anything of this time except that it, in recollection, seems blissfully short.

For a reason lost in the mists of time I and my younger brother transferred to the Methodist Sunday school which we attended for many years and from which I have many memories, mostly happy. In a village, even one as large and spread out as Minster in Sheppey, the church provides a solid social base, the religion bit is very secondary, or it was in the 1950s (yes, I’m that ancient!). Neither of my parents was particularly religious: my mother attended the occasional church service but I cannot remember my father ever entering a church for any reason whatsoever. Ever. It was never a topic of his conversation either.

In 1957 a new scout troop, the ‘10th Sheppey’, was established which my brother joined (we had both been in the 3rd Sheppey Sea-scouts ‘cubs’ section); he seemed to enjoy it so some time later I too joined and quickly rose to ‘second’, ‘sixer’ and then ‘troop leader’. The troop used to meet in the Abbey gatehouse, now a ‘Scheduled Monument’ and museum, but then a rather dilapidated left-over space which the troop quickly colonised. This was before the days of Health and Safety and every ‘Bob-a-Job’ week we would lower a two-wheeled trek-cart on ropes through a trap-door in the floor of the gatehouse to the stony trackway some twenty and more feet below. Madness.

I digress: the 10th Sheppey Scout Troop was affiliated to Minster Abbey, dedicated to Saints Sexburgha and Erminhilda, the two founding Abbesses of the oldest Abbey Church in Britain, and one day a call came from the vicar to the scouts for volunteers to join the church choir. My brother and I each had passable treble voices and we joined the choir. This meant quitting the Methodist church but that was compensated by the excellent youth club run by the Abbey in the old tea-rooms next to the cemetery, where we played endless games of table-tennis, snooker and darts, and we learned how to dance.

A little time later the boys in the choir were offered confirmation classes in the front room of one of the vergers and around the age of fourteen I found myself duly confirmed by the Bishop of Rochester into the fellowship of the Church of England in the historic parish church at Eastchurch – best known for the first airfield in England (from where Lord Brabazon flew) and the open prison. About the only thing I recall of these evenings was being told by the verger that one day I would become Prime Minister! I must have been an argumentative little bugger? Oh, and I knew bits of the Bible pretty well. None of this was done because I particularly desired it and my ‘Christianity’ was very laid back, uncharismatic and non-evangelical. It just sort of happened as an integral part of having a caring mother and ‘hands off’ father in a semi-rural part of late 1950’s England.

In 1963 when I reached the grand age of seventeen, I found myself in a group discussion having to defend Christianity in the prefect’s room at Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne. The only other defendant of God was my good friend Ben, who had recently undergone a mysterious experience, of which he never divulged a word despite intense questioning, but which had left him a firm believer in a deity although not necessarily particularly religiously so. We failed abysmally: I was not a proselytising Christian. It is an interesting aside to ponder the fact that in a prefects’ room of fifteen or so guys in 1963 none was a believer, because neither Ben nor I were prefects, being in the lower sixth at the time, and we had been dragged in to debate God by the upper sixth prefects. It follows that there were very few church-goers in a sixth form of more than 60 boys and this was, I believe, a fairly accurate reflection of the state of religiosity among the relatively intelligent youth in the UK.

For us young men, this may have had a little something to do with the senior maths master, a particularly nasty piece of work whom we called ‘Tot’ Wheatley (totting up/maths? Geddit?) who was a member of ‘Toc H’ the militant arm of the Methodist Church. Militants of all descriptions are really their own worst enemies aren’t they?

I’ve quoted that joke about the CofE in an earlier post that says so much about the English:

“Are you religious?”

“Yes, I’m a member of the Church of England.”

“Ah, so you’re not religious then!”

By this time my voice had broken and I no longer attended church and when I went ‘up’ to study architecture at the University of Sheffield in 1964 I had no personal or emotional ties to religion and I spent my wonderful university years largely blissfully free of God and religion of any shape whatsoever. There was also the ‘summer of love’ to enjoy. I hadn’t become an atheist as such, I just gave God no further thought, until in my postgraduate years I shared a flat with four really bright guys and we spend many a happy evening smoking dope, listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and those American bands on the CBS label, like Chicago and The Flock, and exploring matters philosophic and religious.

In 1970 I purchased my Faber Paper editions of ‘The Geeta’ and ‘The Ten Principal Upanishads’ (now beautifully rebound) after a particularly intriguing chat with Dave, a lover of LSD and ‘The Divided Self’ by R.D.Laing and unbeknownst to me at the time, this was my first tentative step into the world of the ‘Veda’ and the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran and the fascinating world of Lao Tzu and ‘Taoism’.

Through one of those strange happenstances of life I happened to have my copy of ‘The Prophet’ on my drawing board one morning in 1974 when a visitor to the architecture studio in which I worked passed by, did a double-take and offered to buy me lunch across the road in the ‘Eight Bells’ public house in the centre of Old Hatfield. Never having been one to knowingly miss a free lunch we had an enjoyable chat which ended in an invitation to join him and his family for supper the following week. George is a Scotsman, his charming wife Marion is Welsh and their two girls are delightfully English, much to George’s chagrin. At this first of many suppers were two couples and I recall the evening passed by very enjoyably in a haze of good food, wine, good company and conversation. As a direct result of this I joined the practical philosophy class of the School of Economic Science in the centre of London and the following term I also enrolled for the economics class. When the philosophy was less than engaging the economics was interesting and visa versa and so I completed the first three years of esoteric study.

Next came classes in calligraphy and Sanskrit, both of which appealed to me and so the years passed. I got married and fathered Simon and Claire. I first tutored in economics (see my post on ‘Value’ below) then in Sanskrit, which I loved and finally in philosophy; I still tutor a philosophy class in the early years and I make the strictest distinction between philosophy and religion, despite the fact that they broadly address similar questions. A key difference is, I believe, that philosophy is an integral part of the world of questions, like science, of keeping the mind and heart open whereas religion is in the business of providing answers and thereby in closing down the heart and mind.

The philosophic antecedents of the school run from Socrates, via Shakespeare to the Vedic concept of ‘Advaita’ or ‘non-duality’. A series of conversations between Leon McLaren the founder of the school in 1937 and the Shankarācharya Shri Shantananda Saraswatī spanning the years 1965 – 1993 forms the foundation of study for the ‘senior’ students of the school. It was here that I began to have qualms about theism and atheism. Despite the fact that I am clear in my own mind about the distinction between philosophy and religion I observed that most of my fellow senior students were believers in God almost by default.

If you ever thought about reviewing ‘non-duality’ sites on the internet, you will find this same dichotomy. Some sites/writers are strictly non-Godly but others have been caught up with the concept of ‘The Absolute’ (Brahman) which becomes directly equivalent to ‘God’ and this I observe in the school too. Fortunately the current leader of the school never mentions God so my continued association remains but it’s getting ever more tenuous.

Fortunately the school runs the annual arts and crafts event ‘Art in Action’ at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, which has become the premier tented summer event of its type, and this aspect of service to humanity is one that I hold dear. (My job is Health & Safety! *facepalm*).

Now, an integral element of membership of the school is the taking-up of mantra meditation and there is plenty of evidence available these days to demonstrate the general beneficial mental aspects of meditation but to ‘advaitins’ one of the key ideas is that meditation will take you all the way to a point of ‘no mind’ or to pure consciousness beyond the mind and therefore to one’s ‘absolute’ Self. Now this is where the trouble starts because it’s clear from the non-religious web sites that the idea of achieving ‘self-realisation’ is fairly commonplace whereas amongst the ‘Godly’ it’s pretty much non-existent. As an illustration, a few months ago I was speaking to one of the ‘éminences grise’ of the school and when I mentioned this fact he said ‘Well, they must all be saints then.’

And there it is. God, saints, angels, satan, etc., are all impediments to what Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ or what is known in non-duality circles as ‘self-realisation’. This is true of the wider aspects of the Godly influence: impediments galore. More recently I have had the undoubted pleasure of reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and Christopher Krzeminski’s ‘What are you without God?’ and I finally realised I was a fully-blown atheist but with a firm belief in the indomitable human spirit, as my first post ‘A penny dropped’ attests. (In which I acknowledge the journey Jen August has taken as recorded in her blog ‘Wading through the Illusion’ and its precipitant effect on resolution in my own understanding).

So I belatedly discovered that I’m a firm atheist, but also a meditator and a believer in the infinite goodness of the human spirit, to which extent I am a spiritual person. Maybe it is the case that in some way the mind is geared towards what may be called ‘natural spirituality’ and an absence of good education allied with religious indoctrination of the young means that impressionable minds can be forced into the cognitive dissonance necessary for belief in an omniscient, omnipresent, transcendent Creator. Its just dogmatic ignorance really.

In addition there are those individual revelations of the numinous, such as friend Ben’s above, but it needs to be remembered that the mind is still largely uncharted territory. Hard-ass atheists will relate the mind purely to the brain, about which precious little is also known. You ‘pays your money and takes your choice’: the mind is either solely an adjunct to the brain or the brain is the decoder of the infinite mind. The fact is: nobody knows. So these individual revelations could all be figments of the mind or imagination and anecdotal evidence is of no value without the ability for replication essential in the context of scientific knowledge, of wisdom.

It seems to me that the tendency to religiosity is largely a psychological matter; essentially believers want to believe so they do, irrespective of reason, replicable evidence or plain common sense. And the obverse is probably equally true so I find I am just as wary of the militant atheist as much as I am of the militant or fundamentalist theist. To that extent I am an agnostic atheist: an atheist but without absolute certainty, which incidentally is the intellectual stance of Chris Krzeminski’s excellent book.

It has taken me a lifetime of effort and study to arrive at this point, I’m kinda jealous of those atheists among you who arrived at this position early in life. But I don’t regret it, and, as always in Philosophy, there is further to go.

There is always further to go, for if there wasn’t one would be omniscient and that is impossible.

And if you have been, thank you for listening.

Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter



A Brazilian Adventure – part 2

Two ayahuasca ceremonies down, one to go. For this one we moved from the Capão (pronounced ‘kapow’ – I kid you not) Valley to Riachinho in another part of the Chapada Diamantina (check out Wikipedia or TripAdvisor for this magical land) to meet our second shaman, Zezito or Blue Eagle, a genuine Cherokee.

He turns out to be an avuncular structural engineer who, rare among Brazilians, speaks tolerably good English. He was once married to a French woman but that ended and he says he’ll never speak French again despite the fact that he’s fluent in French. Just goes to show the power of the feminine, and they claim they don’t rule the world, pffft.

He got the name ‘Blue Eagle’ because one day he was brought an injured Blue Eagle on account of the sanctuary he ran for injured raptors (see’ you like him already) and he gently nursed it back to health. Thereafter it wouldn’t leave him for a second. If he was called out to give a structural engineering or other consultation the eagle would follow his car, perch there until he emerged from the consultation and then fly back behind the vehicle.

Upon arrival at Riachinho we were each shown to little two-bed stand-alone shacks in the woods to one side of his magnificent home, which naturally he had built himself. These shacks (I had #11) were constructed to contain two children as his estancia is dedicated, inter alia, to the education of the young (grows on you doesn’t he). He also gives employment to a number of locals on the farming element of the estate where coffee, bananas and mushrooms are the principle crops. And then there is that (larger) part given over to his shamanic practices.

The centre of this is the truly magnificent ‘temple’ he has constructed as part of and an adjunct to his home. It has a hyperbolic-paraboloid roof constructed from straight timbers grown on the estate and it can seat 100 people easily. The guest dining area is at a level three-steps higher from the temple proper and his little daughter Maja has a snug reading area off with couch and bookshelves. She is a fortunate girl.

We assemble around 4pm and after brushing us each in smoke and a condor’s feather he talks to us at length in English (thankfully both Vairea and Lauren speak passable English too) in a manner that will be familiar to readers of Carlos Castaneda and nothing he says in any way presents any challenge to the advaitic principles that were then prominent in my world view. He speaks of brother- and sisterhood, of nature, of harmony, of planets, constellations and galaxies and he ends up with an appeal for each of us to discover our inner child having prefaced this with an aside on his abhorrence on the harming of children.

He speaks in detail about the Inipi ‘sweat lodge’, its design and the ceremony that is planned for later that day. We conclude with an opportunity to say why we’re here and what our expectations are. He says that hope for a purer heart is ok whereas a wish for world peace is ‘bullshit’. He then hands out a ‘talking stick’ (complete with feathers) and whosoever holds the stick holds the right to speak without interruption. When it comes to my turn to speak I find I am flooded by tears so open is the heart to what has been and whatever is to follow.

After an hour or so Leo, who has accompanied us from Lothlorien takes the floor and Paul translates his brief Portuguese into English and then we begin preparations for the Inipi Purification Ceremony.

Diary:    “Afterwards we collect bunches of flowers from the beautiful grounds and wander down to the sweat lodge site near to the river and lay the flowers around the ‘tree of life’ located just outside the opening to the lodge. We then set about cleaning the site and prepare the fire, which turns out to be a large structure in the form of a truncated pyramid about a metre high and it contains within its heart some two dozen river washed stones each about the size of a large mango or pineapple.”

When Blue Eagle is satisfied with the cleanliness of the freshly swept site we return for a shower and supper. The sweat lodge experience is postponed to the following morning and we are sent off with instructions to gather at 4.45am. Which we do, but for me with some reluctance as I hadn’t slept well and the weather was cool and windy. When we arrived at the sacred site the fire was already well alight and we settled down to watch it consume the clever timber pyramid and thoroughly heat the stones within. As we watched the fire Zezito teaches us some Cherokee chants.

Diary:    “These chants were just like the singing of ‘Redskins’ found in Hollywood movies of the mid-twentieth century with the accent on some vowel sounds (he later explained to Lesley and I that these stressed sounds relate to different chakras: the pure ‘a’ sound relates to the heart chakra for example); it was those almost shouted sounds that made the chanting seem so authentic. At the level of mind I could see scepticism but at the level of heart there was a recognition that allowed me to join in with the chanting with gusto. It was rather freeing and we sang a number of chants or songs whilst the huge fire burnt down to a few red embers.”

We were instructed on the etiquette of the sweat lodge and Blue Eagle begins the ceremony with an appeal to the spirits of the compass points. As previously Zezito lights up a peace pipe, with its metaphor of the male stem and the female bowl, and he blows smoke over the heart chakra of each and again wipes us with his condor’s feather. We then stripped off to our swimming trunks and bikinis and duly filed through the low entrance on all fours into the sweat lodge, men first. I find myself seated cross-legged on the dark earth floor between a naked Laurent and the new arrival, Paul’s brother Gary, and once the ten retreatees are inside the ‘firemen’ Paul begins transferring the twenty or so red-hot stones from the embers of the fire to the shallow dip in the middle of the sweat lodge. This takes some time and as Paul labours Blue Eagle speaks non-stop in a fashion similar to his speech yesterday in the ‘temple’. Everything he says seems full of reason and light.

Eventually all the stones are transferred and Paul joins us inside the lodge. The heat is scalding as water is added to the stones and perspiration is endemic. A little gecko appears and seems to stare at me for ages before scurrying off. My body is not attuned to sitting cross-legged on the earth floor and the agony of posture and the scalding heat make me the first to seek the coolness of the outside air and I am permitted to leave once Blue Eagle has finished his soliloquy. I half expect to find myself alone outside as the others didn’t seem to have any difficulty with conditions in the sweat lodge so I find a space on the earth outside and as instructed I hug the planet and think harmonious thoughts.

You can imagine my surprise as I was soon followed by a steady trickle of people quietly stretching out on the earth around me, and after a long while I decide the time has come to go down to the nearby river (more a strong stream) to cleanse the body. My surprise is made all the more astonishing by the revelation that most of the others had discarded their swimwear altogether and were stretched out face-down and stark naked with arms and legs akimbo. It was time to meditate and I wandered off to find a quiet corner to practise and surrender my astonishment. People come and go past my seated form and after a half hour or so I get up and go to the river. I am joined by Zezito and we both strip off and plunge into the cold water. It is blissful, and as we bathe we chat. It turns out that he is only two years younger than I and we discover we have much in common. He is a charming companion and I hope he found my company just a bit enjoyable.

We returned to our rooms to shower and gather at the temple for a sumptuous breakfast and talk of Inipi purification. Afterwards I settle down to write up my diary – I have much to record – but young Maja joins me and despite the fact that neither of us speak a word of each other’s language we spend a very happy and delightfully enjoyable half-hour or so communicating by signs, play-acting and drawings; she is a real sweetie and is a credit to her exceptional parents. Maybe she touched the inner child in me that we had been asked to seek; who knows?

I am joined by the lovely Lesley, the English lady of uncertain years and resident of St Martin in the Caribbean, and I have to admit that I have very slightly fallen in love with her and her mane of light auburn hair. We talk for a while and then decide to amble off together to visit the Riachinho Falls, a half an hour or so away. On the bridge over the river we play a game of Pooh-sticks and I am amused to discover she doesn’t know about Pooh-sticks. She is a most amiable companion and the morning is thus brought to a sweet conclusion. After lunch Lesley and I fall into conversation with Blue Eagle and this is my diary record:

“Lesley and I spent a pleasant half hour or so talking with Zezito about his life and his world. He told us the story of how he came to be a Cherokee shaman which began with a plot of land he had acquired elsewhere and no sooner had he commenced digging foundations for a proposed dwelling than he found a beautiful crystal. It looked exactly like a picture he had seen in some publication or other and found that the picture was related to a full Cherokee woman now living in Sweden. On the second attempt – the Brazilian postal system prevented the first attempt – he got the crystal to her via one of his sons and the receipt of this crystal brought her to Brazil and he became this woman’s disciple for five years (a bit like Socrates and Diotima). The story sounded fantastical but I heard him tell the same story later and assume it to be true. He also told us something of his life as an engineer and how he came to develop the estate and associated buildings, especially the unusual temple building. He is not an ayahuasca Shaman and although we will be holding our third and final ceremony tonight here at Riachinho he will not be in attendance.”

Rain threatened that evening’s ayahuasca ceremony so Paul thought we might have the ceremony inside the temple, but when it came clear there would be no fire the group decided to brave the elements and hold the ceremony at the outside sanctuary. We all pitched in and soon had the sanctuary cleared and swept and sufficient wood for the fire. Once night fell we gathered as previously in our off-white outfits and the third ceremony began once the fire was well alight. The weather was threatening but in the event it proved to be only slightly inclement and apart from a short time bundled against wind and rain the evening proved to be beautiful and largely star-studded.

Paul’s brother Gary had joined us only that morning and had not had the bedding-in of the first two ceremonies and he clearly found the experience a trial, so much so that Paul had to take him away from the circle and tend to him personally. Just because ayahuasca seemed to me to be the gentlest of companions it is not so for the unprepared or unguarded. The mind can be a febrile place. I can do no better to sum up these ayahuasca ceremonies than by a longish quotation from my diary:

Strangely enough I have not vomited once through the three sessions although the ayahuasca has played havoc with my digestive system in an accurate simulacrum of diarrhoea. But this time despite ominous rumblings, gurglings and windiness I was spared the bathroom call. I did however experience some exquisite visual images, some not unlike air-borne seeds with delicate fronds in colours primarily green, blue violet and purple, exactly like those in James Cameron’s movie ‘Avatar’. I felt strangely expansive and was really taken by the star-filled night sky, my beloved companions and the form and shape of the surrounding trees flickering in the light of the fire.

“At one point I thought a visit to the bathroom was going to be necessary; I left the circle and as I did the moon slid out from behind a cloud and the path was brightly lit as if by magic. Suzana had seen me leave and followed me with a torch in order to safely light my way through the trees but her care and attention was made entirely redundant by the moonlight, and when I reached the paved area outside the temple building I turned to await her arrival. Without a word we fervently embraced each other for what seemed to me to be a long and beautiful time: the embrace was one of love but without a trace of sexuality – it was a straightforward recognition of the ‘same’ in each other which might be humanity but it might also be one’s real identity seen in each other. Oddly, my breath came in short gasps as if there had been physical exertion but once it settled down we spoke words of mutual affection and appreciation and I excused myself for a futile visit to the bathroom. Who knows why anything happens or for what purpose?

“Suzana is probably the sweetest woman I have ever met in my life; she is selflessly generous and apparently unaware of her beauty and charm. Meeting her has been undoubtedly a highlight of this trip if not of this lifetime.

“On the subject of ayahuasca and vomiting or the ‘squits’ as a metaphor of the removal of impediments what I did uniquely experience this time was almost uncontrolled yawning and sighing and according to Dale this is another way this medicine works. Ayahuasca is definitely not a psychedelic substance but it clearly does have an effect. For me it is a certain feeling of wakefulness, a deep stillness without criticism or judgement of any kind and – above all – an opening of the heart which is the undoubting feeling of freedom. Subsequently I feel as if the heart might be now be ajar as being fully open, especially for me, is a tall order.

“Leo looks after these sessions with great care and precision using Paul and Suzana as extensions to that compassion. His songs go straight to the heart and are fully engaging throughout the ceremony; at other times they would probably seem trite. He tops and tails the ceremony appropriately and the unity of the group at the end of the sessions is a delightful tribute to both the ayahuasca and his devoted attention. It is difficult to describe quite how important the individual hugs are at the end of the ceremonies in establishing the mutuality of love and trust in the group. Lesley made the point at breakfast, when I had difficulty in responding to the question ‘how was it for you?’, that ayahuasca keeps on working and it could be six months or more before the lessons it has to teach are fully learnt.”

All that was left for the last day of the ten day retreat was the revealing of our ‘power animals’. Zezito, carrying a drum, gathered us together on a rainy afternoon, not the sort of rain seen in American movies, but on/off light rain and off we hike in good companionship to a cave some way distant. When we arrive we realise little eight year-old Maja has been there earlier and she has sweetly left a few of her stuffed animals around the entrance to the cave to welcome us. Zezito gives instructions and explains the procedure and with far too few flashlights we slowly clamber down the steep rocky terrain into inky blackness. We can hear the rush of an underground river and upon reaching a mini plateau we dispose of our bodies around in the darkness as near prone as we can manage and once silence descends from the group there is just the nearby rushing of a full underground river. There is no fear.

It was at this point that Zezito commences his drumming, slowly and rhythmically and as he does so he very gradually increases the tempo to a thumping rhythm and the mind and body sync with the beat and all other thoughts subside. Suddenly, after 15-20 minutes he stops and guides us inwards. Our ‘power animal’ will appear, he promises, but if more than one animal presents itself he says we just have to question each in turn and none of the animals can lie so by a process of questions it is possible to find the true power animal who will just not go away. For me an American Bald Eagle presents itself immediately and under the most strenuous questioning it just remains quietly unperturbed looking around with eagle-like distain. No other animal presents itself and I feel filled with the power of the gimlet-eyed eagle. We are very happy in each other’s company.

In due course Zezito says we must give voice to our power animals ‘altogether as one’ and the air is suddenly filled with squawks, grunts, growls and all manner of animalistic sounds and it is the most hilarious experience and we all end up laughing like drains in the pitch blackness with the rushing river harmonising the collective mirth. And then it was all over and we slowly regained the light and the cave entrance in the best of humour. That evening I depart with Suzana and Dale on the local bus for Palmeira where we reconnect with the overnight bus to Salvador and I fall into a dreamless sleep.

Suzana has offered bed and board at her aunt’s apartment in central Salvador for the four days before flying back to Europe. This time turn out to be quite magical for me, but that is another story, it is difficult to explain the thrill and complete satisfaction the mere company of a beautiful woman can afford and I leave Brazil a quite different and more relaxed person than the one who had arrived twenty days earlier. The whole adventure had fulfilled my intention for the trip and you can’t say more than that.

And if you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter.


A Brazilian Adventure – part 1/2

Two and a half years ago I took a trip to Brazil at the invitation of one of my ex-students of practical philosophy, who has subsequently become a firm friend, in order to attend an eleven day, shaman-led Ayahuasca retreat in the Chapada Diamantina, a Brazilian national Park in Bahia. Paul was married to a Brazilian lady and after they split up he decided to give up a good job in London, rent out his flat and take pot luck in Brazil. He landed in Salvador, the capital of Bahia and once the capital of the country and for six months or so lived a life of unremitting hedonism (he’s a good looking chap).

Like the Prodigal Son, he woke up one fateful day and looked objectively at his life; he claims our philosophy classes in London were instrumental in this naval gazing, and he didn’t particularly like what he saw. By this time he had met the wondrous Suzana and between them they set out to find what would make life truly worth living.

They met a shaman in the relatively new Santo Daime tradition. Santo Daime is a syncretic spiritual practice (relating to a historical tendency for a language to reduce its use of inflections; religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions) which was founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre by Raimundo Irineu Serra, known as Mestre Irineu. Paul’s shaman’s name was Leo and he introduced Paul and Suzana to ayahuasca and began initiating them into Brazilian shamanic practices.

Ayahuasca is a banned substance in Europe and the USA but is freely available in Brazil and Peru. Traditionally, this beverage contains a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis (or alternatively the Diplopterys cabrerana). It has now been determined what the active components of these ingredients are, and some people have used plants from other parts of the world to make similar herbal potions.

The most important active component in ayahuasca as far as its visionary qualities are concerned is a substance called DMT (dimethyltryptamine). DMT has a powerful effect on consciousness that is difficult to describe in words. Many say it is ‘spiritual’, and is characterized by detailed, bright and colourful visions. Indigenous people say that during their trance, which lasts approximately four hours, they enter the world of the spirits and communicate with them, while psychologists consider DMT to be one of the hallucinogens, or psychedelics: “substances which make the soul visible.”

(Nb the bulk of the last three paragraphs have been taken direct from the website

One of the things Paul and Suzana did at this time was set up a web site at dedicated to the dissemination of information about ayahuasca, and named, he said, after an email conversation with yours truly (do take a look, there’s lots of goodies) and he commenced offering ayahuasca retreats to the world. From summer of 2008 he also began asking me to join him in a retreat so that he could start to repay some of the philosophic debt he said he felt towards me.

At the very end of 2010 (Christmas Eve to be exact) the global ‘credit crunch’ was instrumental in terminating my employment as an architect and Town Planning Consultant. I was stunned, but fortunately years of meditation and reflection had provided a bulwark against anguish and relatively quickly I got used to the idea of not working for a living. Fortunately, I was quite well provided for with private pension arrangements and had a tiny mortgage so I embraced the idea of retirement, despite not yet having reached the usual retirement age in the UK of 65 years.

After nearly three years of keeping Paul and his invitations to ‘retreats’ at arm’s length, suddenly I had no excuse not to go. I could afford it (just) and he enticed me with the idea of an ‘old man’s’ retreat. So I accepted and made arrangements to fly to Salvador in Bahia, via Lisbon on TAP Airlines on April fool’s day 2011. We flew out of Heathrow early in the morning and arrived in Brazil around midnight local time after a few hours lay-over in Lisbon. For a temperate dweller Salvador was like walking into a fully operational sauna and here began four days of perspiration.

Paul was there at the barrier, beaming. We got the money aspect out of the way – these retreats are not cheap – and we jumped into a taxi and headed off into the damp, humid and warm Salvadorian night heading north to a small gated seaside community called Barro do Jacuipe where the stunning Suzana was waiting with a beautiful vegetarian supper even though midnight had come and gone. We ate, dank and talked on the covered verandah at the rear of the house until 2am and then off to bed.

We spent four blissful and lazy days at their house; every day we would wander on to the wide sandy beaches and enjoy the savagery of the southern Atlantic surf and swim in the community’s club-house open air pool. Suzana gave me two muscle-stretching, bone-crunching massages. I kept a dairy each day and these reminiscences are adapted from the diary. (In this post I shall not go into detail but I am willing to publish the long version should there be sufficient interest.)

On day 5 two other retreat members arrived at the house, a Frenchman, Laurent, and his delightful (and gorgeous) Tahitian female air stewardess partner, Vairea, and in the evening we collected at Salvador’s central bus station where we were joined by two others, a beautiful 24 year old architecture graduate from UCLA, Elissa – whose Brazilian-born mother had recently died – and Dale, a thirty-something chunky Korean naturalised Australian film-maker. Suzana was not to accompany us, so six of us boarded the overnight bus to the Chapada Diamantina. Sleep was fitful and disturbed by difficult passengers (two of whom were ejected from the bus) and we arrived in Palmeira around 6am and disembarked into the fresh morning damp air of 1,000m above sea level. For the next eleven days perspiration was largely a ‘no show’ as the climate resembled a fine, cloudy English summer’s day. I was relieved.

We were met by a toothful, smiling driver of quite the largest Chevrolet shooting brake I’d ever seen which swallowed us six and our luggage with consummate ease. The roads in Palmeira were paved but immediately outside the town the roads became rutted dirt tracks and we weaved and bounced our way to our home for the next eight days in the Valle do Capão. An hour or so later we pulled up at a low, single-storey pitched-roof spread called ‘Lothlorien’ and upon disembarking were met by the cackle of small monkeys in an adjacent tree next to the banana grove. There was a nearly new four bedroom accommodation block and we were allocated a commodious room each with its own shower room and a verandah where hung an inviting hammock.

The first ayahuasca ceremony was scheduled for day three and in the meantime there was a settling-in and reception process that included lunch followed by a session with Leo, our shaman, who investigated our chakras (surprisingly accurately) and his wife, Claudia, who gave a hands-off massage with stones and crystals (I fell asleep on the massage table!). There was a full programme of early morning yoga and meditation and daily treks around the beautiful valley; everywhere the scene was coloured purple by the florescence of a local tree.

The first ayahuasca ceremony took place in the afternoon of day 3 commencing just after midday and was held at Leo’s property in another part of the valley, which required the Chevrolet for transport. Having been dropped-off at the termination of the track and a further five minute walk through scrubby woods, there in a swept clearing was Leo’s unfinished house, an adjacent finished toilet block with anaerobic digester, an impressive tepee some way off, a well-stocked garden and a commodious sacred ceremonial area or ‘sanctuary’. The earth sanctuary had been meticulously swept and rush matting had been placed around in a large circle centred upon a sunken fireplace with stones of various sizes identifying seating positions, where a young man was engaged in lighting the sacred fire. An altar of sorts stood by one side.

After preliminary devotions spoken in Portuguese (and translated by Paul) the shaman turned to face the gathering and one by one we advanced for the ayahuasca ‘tea’. I had read widely on the internet prior to this moment and expected a glutinous, revolting taste, but I was pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t actually tasty but neither was it noxious, with a sort of woody vegetable flavour and not at all viscous. We sat round in our appointed places and for maybe an hour nothing much happened but for members of the congregation disappearing off into the surrounding jungle to vomit – a much expected after-effect of imbibing ayahuasca. Oddly, I didn’t vomit nor even feel the need despite the fact that I’d always thought I had a weak stomach largely through an inability to hold much alcohol.

Diary: “For me the first uncontrolled experience was a desire to laugh, which I managed to control for a while but … there came a moment when I was unable to keep the desire under control and I remember heartily laughing out loud for a few moments – well maybe a little longer – and thereafter I was not subjected to any uncontrollable emotions or desires. Later I said that I wanted to laugh out of sheer joy and in reflection I can think of no other reason.

Then Leo began singing Santo Daime songs, which I later learnt he had largely penned himself; the songs were simple and oddly involving such that I found myself quietly joining in, as did Laurent on my left. Leo was joined in song by his wife, Claudia, and time passed very contentedly. I had expected all sorts of hallucinations, but if what I experienced was hallucinatory it was extremely gentle and heart-warming. Another hour or so passed when I was gripped by rampant flatulence and an urgent need to visit the bathroom and I made my way to the stand-alone bathroom block just making it in time to avoid a nasty case of diarrhoea – I guessed the ayahuasca must express itself at one end or the other.

After another hour or so a second helping of ayahuasca was offered which was taken up by all except Suzana. The women seemed to have most difficulty of one sort or another, and ended up wrapped up in prone positions or in a hammock, except Vairea who just quietly rocked to and fro for hours. My thoughts on this first session are taken from my diary:

Upon reflection the truth that was being clearly presented to the mind was that I, the real and essential ‘Self’ (i.e. not the ego), is simply the witness to each and every event, including the movements of my own mind. The mind loves involvement but the witness or observer is one, detached and alone. I was entirely happy with either the play of involvement or the play of detachment.

And:       At the conclusion of the ceremony Paul read out a homily which stated quite clearly that the ‘sacred’ circle contained truth, beauty and justice at its centre and that entry thereto made these powers available to the supplicant … and personally speaking the feeling is that the heart was truly open to receive such words. Finally, we all hugged each other like brothers and sisters. I first hugged Leo for whom I felt love and trust in his care throughout the ceremony and finally I hugged Claudia which brought tears of joy and gratitude: all in all a very memorable and valuable experience. The ‘lady’ (Paul’s term for ayahuasca) was, I felt, very gentle with me: the question is what did she intend to show? Well she definitely seemed to have a humourous side but also absurdity, love, compassion, togetherness and harmony.

We finished the ‘ceremony’ with a dip in the nearby river and having reconnected with the Chevrolet we wended our way back to Lothlorien and a vegetarian supper garnered from the kitchen garden. Back at our rooms Dale and I lay in our respective hammocks and chewed the fat regarding our experiences of that first ceremony. He seems to have had a much more profound journey than me, but, as I later became to realise, one’s experiences have much to do with one’s expectations.

Three days later, the second ceremony again took place at Leo’s; it was scheduled to take place in the tepee in the evening. The group had been swelled by the arrival of Lesley, a rangy pencil slim English woman who lives in St Martin in the Caribbean; in her ‘middle’ years she faced the world with a wide smile. We spend most of the day at As Rodas, Leo’s place, tidying, preparing food and swimming; eventually, all clad in light coloured clothing, we gathered in the tepee – men on one side and women on the other – and the ceremony began with the imbibing of the ayahuasca around a central fire. The smoke from the fire forced the congregation to the circle outside the tepee and once the matting had been relocated we settled under the brilliant starlit southern sky exaggerated by the complete absence of light pollution.

The evening proceeded much as the first ceremony with comings and goings to accommodate the ayahuasca (and for me another case of the ‘squits’) but the most memorable part of the evening for me was the awe and oneness with the cloudless southern sky untrammelled by light pollution, the friendliness of the surrounding trees and the open heart for the world and everybody present. Leo brought along a fellow Santo Daime follower who played gentle guitar solos before backing Leo’s singing.

Diary entry:

I wanted to know first-hand the unity of ‘advaita’ or ‘not two-ness’. Each of the two ceremonies so far allowed me to experience an opening of the heart which may be characterised as a real ‘sense of belonging’ to the group and the event; this seems like a form of love in which nothing is excluded and everything and everybody is included with warmth and affection. There is a real appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things in which everything fits in a beautiful jigsaw puzzle that is in no way alien to the witnessing awareness; indeed the appreciation of being or existence itself is not different from the act of witnessing – they are one and the same. It is not as if something is being viewed from the outside but rather from the inside, that what is being viewed is the same as that which is viewing it. And at one level whilst there is the removal of difference from the ‘play’ of life  it remains of inestimable interest and attraction: the starry night sky that evening proved to be of particular fascination. To sum up, it seems to me that ayahuasca allows the perception of one’s real beliefs to be experienced; as Shakespeare put it in the mouth of Prospero: it ‘provides an habitation’ to the contents and intents of the heart.

In due course, around 2am, it was time to sleep and Paul prepared a place for me on the floor of the tepee and I slept like a baby in a borrowed sleeping bag. During the night there were two ‘old man’ visits to the bathroom block and I surfaced fully around eight, in time for meditation in the mist-filled cool air of the Capão Valley followed by a sumptuous vegetarian breakfast. Later that day we were to move to Riachinho in another part of the Capada Diamantino to meet Zezito, our second shaman but this time a full Cherokee. There we were to have our third and final ayahuasca ceremony but under Zezito’s guidance we were also to be introduced to the ‘Inipi’ purification ceremony and the discovery of our ‘power animals’. This forms the second part of this post, as this one is already quite long enough.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Stephen ‘Kool*son’ Coulson

@philositect on Twitter

Morality without God

Theists claim there is no morality without God, whose ‘words’ have all required men to interpret them; Gospels are therefore no more spiritual than the men who wrote them down from the oral traditions from which they arose. (Unless, of course, they happen to be the dreams of historic paedophiles which have somehow strangely become holy writ.)

In other words all Godly utterances have as their commonality the instrumentality of man, the inventor of all the Gods that have ever been allowed to control man’s actions and thoughts and this appreciation accounts for the fact that all scripture has as its primary social aim the control of the excesses of human nature, especially sexuality. Religion is essentially censorious (ask any victim of the Taleban – or the Tea Party for that matter).

Sadly, it is all too pertinent a fact that the greater majority of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been at the hands of the so-called Godly or believers in this or that ‘-ism’. In short, the unreason of ‘faith’ in one ‘-ism’ or another is at the heart of man’s inhumanity to man, and it continues to be so to this very day.

It doesn’t matter if the ‘-ism’ is religious or secular in nature, belief in it demands careful consideration and deep reflection. To quote Anthony de Mello “People kill for money or for power. But the most ruthless murderers are those who kill for their ideas.”

Murder is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Rape is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Theft is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Slander is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Libel is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Maiming is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Cruelty is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Smugness is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Jealousy is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Claiming truth is wrong – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Goodness is its own reward – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that

Evil is its own reward – it doesn’t need a God to tell you that


Heaven is here and now – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Hell is a state of mind – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Paradise is a figment of the imagination – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Religious faith is misguided – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

There is no ‘hereafter’ – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Atheism is logical – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Humanitarianism is right – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Equality is true – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Feminism is desirable – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Education is essential – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Competition is fine – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

The development of talent is necessary – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Most importantly:

Love is the underlying reality of existence – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Compassion is the expression of that love – it needs a person of reason to tell you that

Morality is right action – it needs a person of reason to tell you that


Compassion quotes:

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.Albert Einstein

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.Dalai Lama

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.Lao Tzu

Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.Confucius

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.Nelson Mandela

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.Albert Schweitzer


Love quotes:

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.Lao Tzu

Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.Oscar Wilde

Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what s/he really is.Jim Morrison

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.Aristotle

Where there is love there is life.Mahatma Gandhi

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.Orson Welles

A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and man cannot live without love.Max Muller

Can miles truly separate you from friends … If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?Richard Bach


Morality quotes:

Morality is of the highest importance – but for us, not for God.Albert Einstein

A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.Winston Churchill

I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality.Mahatma Gandhi

Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.Henry David Thoreau

In Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with reality at any point.Friedrich Nietzsche

I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle-class morality.George Bernard Shaw

The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.Ayn Rand

Compassion is the basis of morality.Arthur Schopenhauer

So when someone has the gall to claim that there is no morality without God tell them that morality is the very heart of being truly human, and it doesn’t need a God to tell you that.

And if you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen ‘Kool*son’ Coulson

@philositect on Twitter

An anatomy of reason

The starting point for this post is the belief that the highest quality of which the human being is capable is that of pure reason. ‘Thinking’ is an essential and unique human trait but the application of reason is what allows thoughts to be assessed for their wisdom, rank stupidity or any strata in between.

In an age of democracy and equality one of the most dangerous ideas around is ‘my idea is as good as yours’ when palpably and objectively that cannot be the case. There is a hierarchy of thought that reflects the point of origination of that thought; for example, a thought starting in prejudice will always bear the mark of that prejudice. Equally, a thought originating in wisdom will ever contain a flake of that wisdom.

Thoughts can begin from any mental state, and by this I do not mean a neurotic or psychotic influence; by mental state I am referencing the ever changing emotional and intellectual landscape that we are each subject to during an average day. There may be a gender bias as to the source of thought but this essay accepts unilaterally that we’re all equally capable of emotion and logic although there may be a non-gender bias to one or the other.

It is very easy to be critical (there is much to be critical of) but it is much harder to be positive and constructive. There is an excellent practice of quietly thinking of someone of whom you are deeply critical and then only objectively considering their good points. This invariably results in a lessening of the criticism and the establishment of some genuine compassion for what is often a shared human condition.

In the anatomy of reason then it may be proposed that:

1                 reason presupposes positivity and constructiveness

2                 reason presupposes compassion

Reason is necessarily well-informed: how can it be reasonable to reject or ignore facts or scientific insight and discovery; that is the way of the ignoramus. The 20th century saw an explosion of scientific and technological inquiry and achievement and it has given much to what we take for granted in the 21st century. The development of the supercomputer opened up the previously untestable world of iterative mathematics and gave us fractals and an insight into the amazing mathematics of evolution. The invention of the Internet has opened up humanity to instant communication and the whole gamut of the world of ideas and in so doing has identified and clarified thinking that is both inhuman and destructive, such as the savage trade in sexual slavery or the heinous practice of female genital mutilation. Knowledge IS power, and the freely available knowledge of the Internet is slowly (and I hope surely) destroying millennia of archaic ignorance and totalitarian belief, although not without its remaining exponents of each.

The third, fourth and fifth aspects of reason then encompass ‘education’ in one form or another:

3                 reason presupposes well-informed opinion

4                 reason presupposes free and necessary access to knowledge

5                 reason also requires a good deal of work or effort

One effect of this abundance of information and knowledge is to force those who place their faith in Bronze Age religious beliefs into the self-created prison of ‘fundamentalism’. Be it Christian, Moslem or whatever the true nature of religious faith is epitomised by the fundamentalism to be found at the basic foundation of that ‘faith’ and its necessary concomitant of ignoring or rejecting new knowledge. It is this tendency that makes religion’s claim to ‘peace’ so laughable. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and Christopher Krzeminski’s ‘What are you without God?’ demonstrate that there are two basic approaches to knowledge acquisition: the first is the ‘route of faith’ and the second is the ‘route of reason’ and they are completely and totally mutually exclusive.

I have essayed elsewhere in this blog (Faith and Reason) that despite religion’s attempts to claim reason for their beliefs, ultimately they have to descend to the flyswatter of ‘faith’ because in their distorted ignorant values ‘faith’ trumps ‘reason’.

Religious critics of Richard Dawkins accuse him of being ‘shrill’, but I ask anyone to read ‘The God Delusion’ and defy you to discover this so-called shrillness. He is clearly impassioned about his criticism of all things religious but he never descends into the sort of name-calling and obnoxious behaviour so evident in the writings of believers. (Twitter is a marvellous forum for seeing the intellectual precedents of theists and atheists alike and it is abundantly evident that it is the former who frequently indulge in irreligious behaviour: they obviously feel threatened by the rationality of atheism). The evidence indicates that religion cannot bear the searchlight of logic and evidence-based thinking, and this is very often reflected in a clear inability to express their thoughts grammatically and with accepted norms of spelling.

The sixth/seventh aspects of the anatomy of reason are necessarily essentially anti-theistic:

6                 faith-based forms of knowledge acquisition are inimical to reason

7                 reason-based knowledge acquisition of necessity includes evidence and logic

But there is more, much more to reason than evidence and logic, important though they are. There is the whole area of creativity and its relationship with the stillness of mind. As a first observation it is fairly clear that an agitated mind will have some difficulty in accessing logic, let alone creativity and mental ‘centeredness or equanimity’. When I worked as an architect – a profession I loved – the bit I enjoyed most was design (the old something from nothing trick – goddit God?). The prelude to design is getting to know the brief backwards, the site like the back of your hand, and the town planning restrictions and requirements firmly in mind. Often I would be worrying a particular aspect and coming up with all sorts of solutions, but not that particular one that shouts ‘this is THE answer’.

So I would sleep on it – not necessarily literally but often so – it might mean attending to some other matter entirely, or just mentally surrendering the matter. Then, and this happened many times, upon returning to the design issue – maybe a day or so later –  a ‘that’s it’ solution would just present itself, apparently out of the blue. Now it is important to realise that without the spade work first of getting the parameters of the design firmly in mind the creative act of ‘design’ just wouldn’t happen. The reality is that the solution to a problem always lies within the statement of the problem; get the statement right and the solution will of necessity follow eventually, a little practise of patience may just be necessary.

So the eighth/ninth/tenth components of the anatomy of reason may be stated as:

8                 reason requires that the groundwork to any issue/problem be fully complete

9                 creativity as an aspect of reason may need a little patience

10              mental activity may need to be surrendered, if only temporarily

Finally there is the need for reflection or meditation. What is clear from the above is that a still mind somewhere along the way is crucial to the exercise of reason. A useful analogy is a pond: throw a stone into a still pond and you can see the ripples expand and rebound; throw a stone into an agitated pond and the ripples become difficult to distinguish from the general melee.  For reason to operate fully a still mind is essential.

I am, and have been for many years, a member of a Practical philosophy group – with which I have many points of disagreement, but mutual respect eases differences – and one of the practices we adopt on our retreats is formal reflection. We take a sentence of philosophic intent and allow it to reflect in the mind; an important rule of reflection is not to get caught by any single thought that might arise (and many do), but to acknowledge each aperçu and then let it go. This process of mental surrender seems to be all important to the practice and in this manner always something new appears. It is a truly creative practice.

Another practice of creativity is ‘brainstorming’, the essence of which is not to limit any idea that arises but to throw it into the ring of ideas just to see how it lands and what may arise. In business I believe it is also known as ‘blue sky thinking’ but the point is that creativity cannot be limited by any particular mind set. It has to be ‘thinking out of the box’ to use another overworked piece of commercial new-think, or thinking without restrictive limit.

But speaking as a sometime meditator of more than 30 years, what really brings the mind to stillness is mantra meditation. Mantra = ‘mind instrument’, and it is an effective way of delving deeply into the turmoil of the mind to reach levels of relative stillness (and some claim absolute stillness, but I’m not so sure). Certainly, there is a strong feeling of elation and even ecstasy when these deeper levels of the mind are reached, but it does take devoted practise.

Meditation needs to be discriminated from a religious practice – although many religions extol the virtue of meditation – you will only find ‘God’ if you believe that is what the practice meditation is for. My experience suggests that the real function of meditation is to plumb the mental depths to a substantial point of conscious rest and from there to open back up to the world and its demands with a mind that is refreshed and willing to see things ‘as if for the first time’. Equally important is the surrender of any idea or (especially) belief that may arise.

So, the 11th+ components of reason may be stated as follows:

11              at some stage the exercise of reason requires a still mind

12              reflection as a particular practice is an effective way of stilling the mind

13              meditation can bring the mind to that stillness which is the tipping point of creativity and insight

And so there we have it: one possible map of the nature and practice of reason, which has been argued to be the apogee of humanity and the human spirit. Reason encompasses study, education, auto-didacticism, work, effort and the application of logic, and important as they are it is access to the real stillness of mind that allows reason free-rein and original insight and creativity.

So here are the complete components of the anatomy of reason elucidated in the above essay:

1                 reason presupposes positivity and a constructive attitude of mind

2                 reason presupposes an open mind or compassion

3                 reason presupposes well-informed and educated opinion

4                 reason presupposes free and necessary access to knowledge (=science)

5                 reason also requires a good deal of work or effort

6                 faith-based forms of knowledge acquisition are inimical to reason

7                 reason-based knowledge acquisition of necessity includes testable evidence and logic

8                 reason requires that the groundwork to any issue/problem be fully completed

9                 creativity as an aspect of reason may need a little patience

10              mental activity may need to be temporarily surrendered

11              at some stage the exercise of reason requires a still mind

12              reflection as a particular practice is an effective way of stilling the mind

13              meditation can bring the mind to that stillness which is the tipping point of true creativity and insight

Nothing is written in stone and the above is only a personal view. I invite any reader to propose additional anatomical aspects so that the fledgling essay may find its flight feathers and soar.

And if you have been, thanks for reading.


Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter



Giving and Establishing Value

Let me start by observing that the term ‘Capitalism’ is a Marxist concept. That doesn’t invalidate it but the misunderstanding of the Marxist analysis led to some of the most reprehensible global activity, megalomania and downright tyranny that only careful study can counter. It was said that the failure of Marxism lay in Marx’s greater hatred of ‘Capitalists’ than his love of the ‘Proletariat’, and when hate trumps love disaster ensues.

Marx wrote his analysis in the mid-19th century England when the Aristocracy was the ruling class and the many landless people were being crushed by a rampant industrialisation. The division was supported by the craven church with such hymns as ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’ from ‘All things bright and beautiful … the Lord God made them all.’ Marx was bravely countering the class war and religion, but the world has moved on and maybe different windmills need to be tilted at: global business, monopoly economics and private land ownership.

Contemporaneously with Marx, Henry George was writing ‘Progress and Poverty’ in America: both works were motivated by the obscenity of growing poverty amidst the growth of flamboyant wealth acquisition and display. Marx’s target was the ‘capitalist’ whereas George aimed at the ‘land-owning’ American aristocracy. It was Jefferson who observed that America had the choice either of ‘free enterprise’ or ‘free land’ and it mistakenly chose the former. That having been done the last 150 years was sadly all too predictable.

This blog is not going to be an essay on Henry George – there is far too much written upon that subject, but if you intend even a vague understanding of Political Economy Henry George and Frédéric Bastiat, as well as Adam Smith and Davids Riccardo & Hume, are essential reading. This blog is about value and how it is given and assessed.

Imagine a shipwreck on a temperate island in which there are many survivors. Assuming a society of bullying and tyranny doesn’t arise, but reason prevails, within a week an economy will have been established. Within a short time working together a society will establish itself – as happened on Pitcairn Island after the Mutiny on the Bounty. The greater the reason available to the inhabitants the more productive and happy will that society be.

The economy will start off producing essentials first, but eventually the economy will expand into non-essential luxury items. Why? Because that what the community desires. Once needs are met desires take over, and toys like the computer upon which I am writing and you are reading will become commonplace. This occurs because of the ‘economies of scale’ Smith et al elucidated.

There are two essential forms of economy; one is the ‘demand’ economy in which the market place exists to establish relative value and hence price and the other is the ‘supply’ economy, where a political elite determine what will be produced and how much, etc. ‘Capitalism’ is an example of the demand economy and ‘Communism’ exemplifies the latter. Given human nature and its ever present desire for individual freedom the ‘supply’ economy has within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as the latter decades of the 20th century demonstrated so conclusively.

A demand economy is based upon mutual trust between people that together they will act in the common good, whereas a supply-side economy is built on the mistrust that acting freely together will serve the best interests of the community. The questions you have to ask yourself are: are you optimistic about trusting your fellow man or are you pessimistic and through mistrust seek to control your fellow man? Your answer to these questions will largely determine whether you are a free-marketer or one of the various forms of socialist.

What is the purpose of a market? It is to establish relative value, especially when markets were principally bartering forums. In facilitating this relativity of value the market also tends to determine the level of wages that the various producers will be able to secure. If something is in high demand the price rises until sufficient numbers of producers are attracted into the market and demand can be easily met. Equally, if a product is not ‘selling’ in bulk producers will leave that sector until once again gluts are avoided and the price settles down and the remaining producers can earn a decent living. Note, in a pure market there is no ‘profit’ there is only relative income.

Sometimes, pain is experienced with this natural inhalation or exhalation of economic activity, but the pain is magnified today because there are few true markets. Cabals, monopolies and price-fixing distort the efficiency of the market and bring a perfectly reasonable mechanism into disrepute, and ‘profit’ replaces income. The perennial response from the populace is: control it! The most recent example of this is Ed Miliband’s blatant populist promise to control the cost of energy in the UK. It, like King Knut’s failure to control the tide, will fail; it has to because it completely ignores basic economic law, but that won’t stop it being a vote-winner. *smh*

Henry George showed (by use of the ‘island’ diagram) that location is all-important to the effective production of wealth. He defined ‘wealth’ as the productive uniting of land and labour. Sometimes ‘capital’ is needed in a business to develop it to meet demand, or to undertake research to improve the company’s products. He defined ‘capital’ as that portion of ‘wealth’ that is reused within the business, and of course it deserves a return, but he shows in a truly free market the return on capital would be entirely reasonable.

The all-important exegesis of Henry George was the identification of the economic margin (which has the function of establishing the minimum wage) and the realisation that non-marginal sites have a surplus arising which has nothing to do with the input of labour. This is what David Riccardo identified as the ‘economic rent’ and it was George’s insight that this unearned increment is actually the natural fund of income to the community as a whole as it arises through the mere existence of the community and not through any action. He argued that this natural surplus is the basis of ‘land value taxation’ or ‘site value rating’.

It works like this: a community decides to build a piece of major community infrastructure – like BART or the London Underground Railway/NYSubway/Paris Metro – and, lo and behold, land prices rise around the infrastructure’s stations and termini. The examples of this effect are legion in the economic annals – have a look yourselves – that examples are unnecessary to cite here. This is why prime sites on Main Street/The High Street are always the most expensive, and private land ownership allows the landlord to take the unearned increment, which on prime sites is colossal. Property developers have always known this, and so do we as consumers of residential property. It is so self-evident you have to ask why no government has really tackled this issue, but insists on taxing those sources of income which are artificially held down by the fact of land ownership, because in this scenario wages tend to the least that we are prepared to accept. Most modern taxation is ‘regressive’, the more tax the greater the downward pressure on the ability of the economy to prosper.

When an economy develops to a ‘first world’ dimension it becomes increasingly difficult to see the above fundamentals at play. This is when ‘profit’ becomes a dirty word. Now it is obvious that no business can survive if it makes no profit, but when the ‘profit motive’ becomes primary the market gets distorted by cabals, inclination to monopoly positions and downright criminality. At this point Adam Smith’s ‘natural economy’ becomes a threat to the community it purports to serve, and governments search around for ways to tame the economic tigers.

Just consider the top 100 profitable companies, and you will see that they have their pre-eminence because of their ability to service mass markets. Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Nissan, the internet giants: Google, Twitter, Hotmail, et al. Not only do they provide just what the world wants they do it with excellence and evident pride. It sets off the criminal class scurrying around to fake the most popular products in an attempt to take a slice of the pie, and they can do this because of our collective gullibility and the crass idea that there is such a thing as a free lunch. There isn’t.
Now, consider, do you really think that a ‘supply-side’ economy would have come up with such amazing invention and quality of product? The Chinese Politburo realised that there would be trouble if the natural entrepreneurship of the Chinese business mind was not released, and the ‘Little Red Book’ was consigned to the dustbin of history. Where is North Korea’s creativity and natural business acumen – it has gravitated to South Korea, and produces world beating products such as: Kia, Hyundai, Samsung and so on.

A supply side (communist) economy is akin to a religious hegemony. States that place religion at the apex of their government closely resemble communist societies. Values are established by the religious head, just as the politburos did and do in communist societies. Where is the economic freedom and personal liberty in Cuba, Iran or Afghanistan? Wise up; socialism = a far greater bondage than a free market economy will ever be able to countenance.

Now, I’m not stupid, despite evidence to the contrary, I am fully aware that there are few really free markets in the ‘capitalist’ west. I have tried to show that this state of affairs exists solely because of successive governments refusing to tackle the vested interests in private land ownership where landlords are free to collect the ‘economic rent’ so freely produced by the mere existence of an economic community.

In the UK all the main political parties are self-proclaimed defenders of the market, but their responses are very different. Time and again after the socialists have been in power the Conservatives (currently in coalition with the Liberal democrats) have to be re-elected to re-establish some financial rectitude. Generally, we would love the baubles hung out by Labour politicians (which is why they are so populist) but the electorate is sufficiently mature to see that the ‘nasty’ Conservatives are necessary to bring the economy to some balance between income and expenditure, as so well encapsulated by Dickens in the form of Mr Micawber: “Income 20 shillings, expenditure 19/6d, result happiness; income 20 shillings, expenditure 20/6d, result misery.”

Having said that, the indebtedness of western societies is such that current government policies on either side of the ‘pond’ have no real chance of balancing the books; we have been living so far beyond our means for so long that the horizon is beginning to be filled by doom-mongers of every description predicting complete collapse of ‘capitalism’. The sadness is that I tend to agree with them, but it is never too late to come to our senses.

Just because the above analysis appears simplistic doesn’t make it untrue. As a well-educated electorate we owe it to our children and their children to seek a government of sufficient insight and strength to begin to tackle the underlying distortions so evident in our societies, to tame global capital, Wall Street and the investment banking industry. When an economy becomes transparent the rampant criminals won’t be able to pull the wool over our collective eyes so easily.

I put it to you that if you are a true humanitarian, who believes in equality of opportunity and outcome, then you owe it to yourselves to seek a government that will really tackle the currently distorted economic landscape and seek a return to open and free markets and honest values, and along the way to tackle the gaping disgrace of private land-ownership by an appropriate land taxation. The power is in your hands.

One target of this post is also to show that an atheist cannot be a socialist in all conscience. But that is a very much more minor goal. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but as the reasonable and rational thinkers that I take atheists to be, I humbly suggest that the all too truncated argument above deserves quiet reflection and a good deal of reading, and this means finding that stillness of mind which is essential for reason to operate properly and creatively.

And, if you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen Coulson @philositect

Reason v faith

Let us assume for just a moment or two that there is an omniscient and omnipotent Creator God who, in some magically unfathomable manner, constructed the universe from nothing – just Himself. How is that different from the Big Bang theory which, because of a growing appreciation of Quantum mechanics, is able to hypothesise the creation of everything from nothing but the Quantum Field? The work of Lawrence Krauss and Jim Al-Khalili exemplify this approach.

But I digress; so there’s this universe miraculously created by God. What is it like? At the most recent count it appears to be constituted by no fewer than 150 billion galaxies (that’s 15 with 13 noughts), and each galaxy contains countless billions of stars. Owing to the observable ‘red shift’ (a sort of visual Doppler effect) it is observable that not only is the universe expanding it is accelerating in its expansion; which means that we’re never going to see more of the universe than we can see today. Arguably, we would have seen an even more numerous universe 10,000 years ago – when some godly creation myths were formulated.

This also means that we cannot see the whole universe, only that part whose light manages to travel to our little home in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy. It is this fact that allows cosmologists to date the universe at 13.7 billion years because beyond that time horizon the universe is ever hidden from our view.

Owing to the steady growth of cosmic knowledge some cosmologists are now considering what might have preceded the Big Bang. Ideas associated with super massive black holes, or concepts like the ‘Big Bounce’ are being worked upon, and these ideas are fascinating. The Big Bounce concept has an echo in the ancient Vedic sources – the Veda – which posits a universe which arises, grows, matures and returns to the Big Crunch, from which the next cycle of creation begins; each cycle is called a ‘Day of Brahman’; for purposes of discussion let us be content with the Big Bang of everything from ‘nothing’ but the Quantum Field.

Frank Lloyd Wright, that fabulously talented and egoistical early 20th century American architect – designer of the iconic ‘Falling Water’ in Pennsylvania and Guggenheim Museum in NYC – was once asked if he believed in God and he answered ‘Yes, but I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.’ He was brought up in the Unitarian Church via his Welsh aunts. What is clear from the truly fantastic numbers of galaxies and stars is that n-a-t-u-r-e is nothing if not abundant. In fact it is in essence universally superabundant.

This superabundance is observable on earth. Take any large deciduous tree; how many leaves will it generate each year? Millions (probably if it’s a Tamarind tree)? Hundreds of thousands certainly! And each leaf is unique; there are no two leaves which are exactly identical and yet they are recognisably from a single source – the tree – in which they share sameness, their unity is undeniable. Similarly, it is said that every ice crystal is unique; it is recognisably hexagonal in form as this is the molecular form of frozen water, but no two crystals are identical, their forms are infinite.

So, the superabundance is undeniable as too is the unity or sameness which runs through each existent entity. There are now 7 billion human beings on earth and each is unique yet identifiably human, irrespective of skin colour or racial type. This being the case, concepts of reincarnation must be brought into question; for with a fixed number of ‘souls’ with which to work how can we account for a burgeoning growth in human numbers? Aliens? Animals ‘earning’ a human birth? Moreover heaven and hell must be getting pretty full by now.

Proof of the existence of God

The number of human beings is surely simply a reflection of nature’s superabundance and at this moment in the history of the world man’s ability to adapt to his environment is such that humanity is now beginning to press upon the ceiling of the ability of the globe to provide the raw materials to maintain life and is polluting the environment beyond correction. On this tiny globe the superabundance of nature is being tested and this pressure will increase until quite naturally human numbers balance to a mutually nourishing relationship between mankind and its nurturing environment, or there will be mass extinction. (Or the Islamists get their wish and begin World War 3!)

Given this superabundance why would ‘God’ be interested in this tiny little planet which is barely visible even from the edge of the Solar System (as Voyager demonstrated)? More importantly, why would ‘He’ be interested in the morality of any one human being? With such amazing superabundance and the countless billions of locations in the universe ‘He’ could afford to be entirely cavalier about every human life, as He is about non-believers or ‘infidels’ according to the OT and the Qur’an. But for ‘believers’ even every hair on their head is counted by this amazing entity: God.

Part of the problem is the term ‘Creation’ itself; to the simple-minded it presupposes a ‘Creator’, and is simply a self-fulfilling concept. So, can ‘creation’ take place without a ‘creator’? Of course it can; Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock devoted themselves to art created by accident or happenstance, and even just ‘found art’. Or consider emotion; who or what creates emotional responses? Why are some people full of compassion and others sociopaths or even psychopaths? Because God?

There are two excellent terms available for use instead of ‘Creation’; the first is ‘cosmos’ having the etymology from Latinized form of Greek kosmos “order, good order, orderly arrangement.” So cosmos means ‘an ordered, harmonious whole, or harmony and order as distinct from chaos’ (Online Dictionary). Or there is the word ‘universe’ having overtones of unity or singleness. Neither of these concepts requires the existence or presence of a ‘Creator’. Problem solved.

As Christopher Krzeminski demonstrates in his excellent book ‘What are you without God?’ religion rests on two wholly untestable ideas: the first is that the metaphysical or numinous is real and exists beyond perception and secondly that faith is preferable to reason as only faith can access the ‘truth’, albeit that reason is a necessary prelude to faith. Faith is necessary because ultimately mind cannot transcend sin to access the truth, which by definition is beyond human understanding anyway. Thus the faithful are malleable in the hands of religious authorities, who are but men who egotistically claim even greater faith.

Interestingly, the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad – one of the ten principle Vedic Upanishads – states quite clearly that man is above the gods because ‘man creates the gods’. The Vedas are not interested in gods but in the singularity of unity as the underlying reality, in the realisation that life is both multiple and unified simultaneously; i.e. Cosmic or harmonious.

Pope John Paul in his encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio’ (Faith and Reason – some twelve years in the writing) recognises the importance of reason to the BIG questions and to philosophy generally, but ultimately he says that faith must trump reason, because only faith can access the ‘truth’. It was a bold try at harmonisation but a failure owing to the metaphysical nature of ‘truth’. The fact is there is no ‘truth’, or any truth that can be spoken without invoking God, the metaphysical or the numinous.

But the encyclical does extol wisdom; a word which compounds ‘wid’ and ‘doom’ and literally means ‘the law of (pure) knowledge’ and comes to mean ‘the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.’ An example of ordinary knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, whereas wisdom requires not putting it into a trifle. The important thing about wisdom is that it is a special form of knowledge, one that incorporates experience. A biblical example is Solomon’s decision to cut the baby in two when claimed by two competing women and naturally he gives it to the mother who wouldn’t hear of the baby being bisected.

Another word for knowledge is ‘science’ from the Latin ‘scio’ ‘to know’. It follows then that wisdom presupposes science. Looked at another way, any philosophy for the 21st century must factor-in such concepts as quantum physics, the theory of evolution, modern cosmology, the mathematics of chaos (which Jim Al-Khalili calls the mathematics of evolution and was only revealed because of the availability of the supercomputer) and so on and it must do so reasonably and logically.

This being the case the question must arise what is the attraction of religion to so many? I would suggest that at the heart of this persistence lies poor education, the sort of education that allows people to say ‘my idea is as good as yours’ when it palpably is not so in the majority of instances. Another reason for the persistence is indoctrination and a third is simple preference: the believer wants to believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is a desire for the fantastical or the magical because there is a deep seated desire that existence be that way. Such people completely miss the awesomeness of existence here on earth, rather they see it as a ‘vale of tears’ and they can’t leave quickly enough to spend eternity in ‘paradise’ with their Redeemer or Prophet. I can only say to such people: ‘good riddance, here’s the door’.

Despite Pope John Paul’s attempt to harmonise reason and faith, through the claim that reason is an integral element in faith, the faithful continue to reject reason, to reject evidence, to reject palaeontology, to reject logic, to reject science. They prefer their phantasmagorical and groundless belief in the totally unprovable metaphysical transcendent reality because: ‘faith’.

In Europe, atheism is well established. There is a joke in England: ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Yes, I am a member of the Church of England.’ ‘Oh, so you’re not religious then?’ In the UK church-going is limited to a tiny fraction of the population and society is the better for it (although there is a worrying growth in ‘charismatic’ Christianity among immigrant communities). There is measurably greater happiness and less criminal activity in countries with little religious manifestation. Whereas in America the opposite seems to be the case; it is said that an atheist could never become President of the United States and when the antics of the Tea Party and right-wing Republican GOP (Growth & Opportunity Program) are taken into account that seems an all too plausible and worrying claim.

Edmund Burke famously said ‘All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’ This post has been written as a tiny part of the clarion call for all people of reason and compassion to stand up and be counted and thereby undermine the fantasists who would rule us all in the name of God or Allah. *Shudder*

If you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen Coulson