Monthly Archives: December 2014

The MWS Podcast 44: Steven Howlett on Volunteering

My guest today is Steven Howlett who is a senior lecturer at Roehampton University Business School and previously was a senior research fellow at the Institute for Volunteering Research where he was involved in many projects looking at the profile of volunteering, the management of volunteers and polices towards volunteering. He’s the co author of Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century and he’s here to talk to us today about volunteering in general, some of the research projects he’s been involved in and how it might relate to the Middle Way.

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Sacred relics

The other day I found a piece of the Berlin Wall: a rough shard of concrete about 3cm x 1 cm, largely grey apart from red on one side, and gift-wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon. It was given to me by a student from Berlin in 1990 (when I was teaching English as a foreign language to German students). When I re-discovered this piece, though, I began to wonder why this otherwise insignificant piece of concrete had been preserved, what it ‘meant’, and why we preserve such things. I began to realise that what I held in my hand was a sacred relic: along with the many splinters from the true cross, phials of the Virgin’s milk, bones of saints and teeth of the Buddha preserved around the world.

Those of a naturalistic (or perhaps just a Protestant) leaning tend to sneer at sacred relics on the grounds that they are fraudulent. It is most unlikely, and indeed can probably be proved by further investigation (carbon dating etc.) that most of the sacred relics in the world are not literally what they claim to be. If one thinks of religion in terms of belief that is a matter of concern, but from the standpoint of meaning prior to belief it matters little. I don’t want to defend fraudulent claims about medieval relics, but at the same time the significance of those relics to religious practitioners probably has little to do with their material origins. Instead they are objects invested with a certain symbolic significance: fetishes, idols, charms, souvenirs, mementos.

I have rather less reason to doubt that my shard of the Berlin Wall is ‘authentic’ – but if it Berlin Wall hole Jurek Durczakwasn’t, this would really have no impact on its significance. Its value as a symbolic object depends only on its connection with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. If one was looking for an event to poignantly symbolise the Middle Way and integration, the destruction of the Berlin Wall might well be it. Entrenched ideologies swept away and false divisions removed by the autonomous actions of the people – what better symbol of Migglism is there than that? It’s all the more poignant as a symbol of the Middle Way because most of the people destroying the Berlin Wall probably didn’t think of it explicitly in that way – but nevertheless they felt the joy of integration and recognised the widened horizons that occur when dogmas are removed.

The significance of the relic, then (whether medieval or modern, ‘religious’ or ‘secular’) comes not from its physical origins but from the projections we put on it. Those projections can themselves often become stuck. I think this is what the monotheistic religions mean by ‘idolatry’ (in Islam, where it’s a very important concept, the term is shirk). If you start to think that the object, rather than just reminding you of some other significant event, concept or person, in some way gives you a shortcut to the fulfilment or integration you would get directly from them, then you are starting to fetishise or idolise the object. That means that you are giving it absolute qualities that it cannot possess. If I were to set up a Migglist shrine giving pride of place to my shard of the Berlin Wall, and expecting veneration of the shard to provide the fulfilment that the destruction of the Berlin Wall (or its equivalents in my life) actually does, then I would have turned my previous mere appreciation of the meaning of the shard into a set of obstructive metaphysical beliefs about it. This would be failing to appreciate why it does have significance to me – that is, as something that relates to my bodily experience rather than a copy of the thing-out-there.

How do we know when we have crossed that line of absolutising a mere reminder? Well, one test might well be whether we can treat the mere reminder as such – changing it or even destroying it in the full appreciation that by doing so we do not change what it symbolises. There’s a well known story about a Zen monk burning Buddha images to keep warm. If you have a shrine of objects you venerate – whether they are Buddhas, family photos, souvenirs or special books – could you happily destroy those objects? Could I take the shard of concrete that I believe to be from the Berlin Wall, throw it away and substitute another shard of concrete? Could the Catholics who venerate a splinter from the True Cross substitute another splinter from a handy nearby fence? Destroying our idols sounds to me like quite a therapeutic exercise, provided you do have a strong sense of the continuing value of what the object symbolises apart from the object.

The problem with this approach is that it can easily get confused with the long history of iconoclasm (destruction of icons) in Christianity and Islam. The original iconoclasts smashed up the icons in Byzantine churches, and the Islamic tradition followed by destroying Christian, Hindu and Buddhist ‘idols’, which they regarded as false gods interceding in our relationship to the true God. To this day you won’t see any pictures of people or animals in a mosque – only perhaps calligraphy or abstract ornamentation based on vegetation. I think the trouble with this is that in the place of fetishized objects or pictures Muslims have substituted words – the words of the Qur’an which were believed to be God’s words. Although they seem to have understood the dangers of absolutising objects or pictures, those dangers lie in the beliefs we have about them, not in the objects themselves or even their significance to us, and it is no advance to substitute other more abstract absolute beliefs for absolute beliefs about objects.

So, my suggestion is that we need to recognise that we all have sacred relics, in the sense of objects to which we attach special significance. The use of terms like ‘mantelpiece’ rather than ‘shrine’ for the places we keep these objects does not stop them being sacred or having a religious dimension. We can enjoy and celebrate that special significance – whether in art, ritual, reflection or conversation – without absolutising those objects or having metaphysical beliefs about them. If we are to stay with the meaning of those objects and enjoy them positively, a recognition and exploration of the distinction between meaning and belief seems crucial, as does a critical sense of when we might be investing our sacred relics with properties they cannot possess.


Picture: Hole in the Berlin Wall by Jurek Durczak – CCA 2.0

Vincent Van Gogh 1853 – 1890. The Potato Eaters 1885.


original potato eaters


On the news recently I heard discussed the growing number of families who have to rely on food banks to supplement their meals, I was thinking about the next painting blog at this Christmas time and thought I  would discuss the subject of an early painting by Vincent Van Gogh where peasants are seen eating a meal of potatoes.

Van Gogh was born in Neunen, the Netherlands, his father was a Calvanist minister and his mother  has been described as a moody artist. Many of us will have heard of the difficulties Vincent had throughout his short life dealing with epilepsy, depression and his eventual suicide, I was surprised to learn that in the ten years he spent painting he created nearly nine hundred oil paintings and over a thousand water colours. Originally he wished to follow in his father’s footsteps but he was rejected as unsuitable on two occasions and decided to become an artist in 1880. In 1882 Van Gogh moved to Dreuthe and led a nomadic life, he studied Japanese art and Eastern philosophy, he wrote in ‘my own work, I am risking my life for it’, he wrote extensively about his work. He returned to Neunen in the north of Holland where he painted The Potato Eaters in 1885, the work is considered to be one of his earliest master pieces, he made several versions and preparatory sketches, working on the composition, this is his only group painting, he hoped the painting would promote his career, unfortunately not until after his death was it seen for what it is. Van Gogh felt very close to the peasants, he saw them as hard working and honest people who tilled the ground, planted and lifted the potatoes they were eating, he was also poor and struggling in his own way. The main character has her back to us, there are four women and a man, they may be related,original potato eaters who are sitting around a square table with rough edges on which is placed a large dish of potatoes, their faces are lit by the low- hanging lamp but the rest of the room is dark and cramped, we can see the rafters, a supporting wall which juts into the room and a picture on the wall, no light seems to be coming in the window at the back of the room. The characters are rather ugly and their hands are gnarled portraying the life of manual labourers.

Van Gogh knew the work of the Impressionists but he was more influenced by the Hague school, his brush strokes were long and bold, in the room the colours are muted, black, dark green and brown, not until he moved to the sunshine of the south of France would his palette be more colourful, the bright yellows of his many  sunflower paintings or the violets of irises, the reds and greens in his scenes and portraits, he made several self portraits of great intensity and insight.

Van Gogh hoped to set up a group of like minded artists and rented a house in Arles, he invited the painter Paul Gaugin to share it with him but they quarrelled and Gaugin left. Van Gogh become increasingly ill, his younger brother Theo with whom he remained close exchanged many letters, Vincent’s were filled with his theories and plans for paintings and his emotional state of mind, which he attempted to portray in his work, Theo arranged for him to live in a hospital in Auvers under the care of Doctor Gachet, he was given two rooms so that one he could use as his studio, he would set off to paint in the country side each day and return to the hospital in the evening, until his suicide. Van Gogh did not know how much his work would later be admired, he failed to make a living from his work.

I wish you all a happy Christmas.

Image from wikipedia.


Website recovery

This website has been entirely down, or only partially functional, for the past 5 days. This is due to a virus infection which took some time to sort out. I had to delete the website and reconstruct it from back-up, and then once it was up again there turned out to be further technical issues. These are now resolved, so the website is back! Please make full use of it, and let me know if you do encounter any further technical issues.

The MWS Podcast 43: Shauna Shapiro on the Art & Science of Mindfulness

My guest today is Shauna Shapiro who is a professor of psychology at  Santa Clara University, a clinical psychologist and an internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. She’s the co-author of the critically acclaimed book: The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions.   She’s here to talk today about the IAA model of mindfulness, the integration of mindfulness into psychotherapy, the evidence behind the effectiveness of mindfulness and how all this might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 43: Shauna Shapiro as audio only:
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