Monthly Archives: July 2016

The MWS Podcast 101: Jim Champion – member profile

In this latest member profile, Jim Champion talks to us about his background, how he became interested in science and his career as a physics teacher. He also talks about why he joined the society and his understanding of the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 101: Jim Champion as audio only:
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The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

This is one of the best-known paintings of the Italian Renaissance, a classic depiction of a Biblical scene: that of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the Jordan. Like many such paintings, there is also much more to it than may initially meet the eye. I have been thinking a good deal recently about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the ways that we could choose to interpret them in terms of the Middle Way. You could ‘read’ this painting only in terms of dogma and discontinuity if you wished: as a symbol of purity (a concept that it often absolute), and of Jesus’ claimed power as the Son of God. But it is much richer and more ambiguous than that. I choose now to understand it more positively.

Piero baptism of Jesus

One of the first things that has puzzled me about this painting is that, although the gospels clearly say that Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, here there is no sign of the river. The reason for this may be that Piero was following a medieval story that the Jordan miraculously stopped flowing at the time of the baptism – so that we are meant to be looking at a dried up river bed. But this may have quite different resonances today, focusing not on miracle stories but on the meaning of an exposed river bed. The drying up of a great river is an ecological catastrophe, but to engage in a quiet, reflective ceremony in those circumstances has a special power. In the face of dramatically adverse changes in conditions such as droughts, wars and revolutions we more than ever need to find a point of reflectiveness and openness in order to adapt.

The sacredness of the ceremony is emphasised by Piero’s unique use of pallid colours, by the balance of the picture around the figure of Christ, and by the spectators. According to the gospel narratives, Jesus had just returned from his temptation in the wilderness: a story that bears some very interesting parallels to the story of the Buddha going out into the jungle. He is now about to return to society and share the insights that he has found in solitude, but to do this successfully he will need awareness, confidence, resolve and support from others. Interpreted positively and experientially rather than just as a conversion ceremony, baptism is a rite of passage that could help a person to integrate all of these things.

The figure of the dove above Jesus, representing the Holy Spirit, more than anything reminds us of the God archetype as Jesus might have been experiencing it at that moment: as a glimpse of his own potential as a fully integrated figure. To maintain a strong link with that potential we need a stable awareness of a right hemisphere perspective to supplement the narrow and goal-driven left-hemisphere dominant state, and the solemnity of a ritual can help achieve this.

But, apart from Jesus and John the Baptist, there is another very important presence in the painting: the tree immediately to the left of Jesus. Experts say this probably depicts a walnut tree such as Piero would have been familiar with in Italy. It is this tree that for me, more than anything else in this picture, that helps put Jesus’ baptism in a genuinely spiritual setting based on the Middle Way. The tree can represent the process of integration as one of organic growth, taking up nourishment through its roots from shadowy and rejected energies in ourselves and transforming them incrementally into a finished, balanced organism. I have already written in an earlier blog about the Tree of Life motif as it is used by Jung in his Red Book, and the Tree of Life can be a powerful alternative symbol for the Middle Way.

On the left hand side are three spectators that I at first did not realise are intended to be angels. One of them has a pink garment that may be intended to re-clothe Jesus after the baptism. An interesting tradition also links these three figures to a process of reconciliation in the Church (and thus to a Middle Way between opposed beliefs). Nicholas Cranfield explains:

A once popular recension of scholars convincingly argued that the picture alludes to the then recent Council of Florence that in 1439 had briefly, and importantly, forged a concordat between the Western and the Eastern Church, a short-lived salve for the centuries’ old rift that had breached Christendom since 1054 and which re-opened soon after the collapse of Constantinople in 1453. Such a ‘reading’ hinges on the gesture of the two angels closest to the Lord, watched by the third, the (?)Archangel, a seemingly superior angelic being. The angels immediately to the right of Jesus take hands in a classical gesture that is associated with Concordia and the Augustan tradition of peace. (from a sermon given in 2004)

The undressing figure depicted behind John the Baptist is also quite striking. His presence seems to emphasise that Jesus’ baptism was not unique: that there were many other people going through the same process. Jesus was not the first or the last to be baptised, or to go through a process of integration. The water and sand behind the main figures also resembles a winding (flooded) path, so we could also see the undressing man as representing another point in the path behind Jesus. We could even interpret him as Jesus himself at an earlier point in time, following the cartoon-like conventions often found in early Renaissance paintings whereby the same figure is represented at different points in a story within the same picture.

In the end, though, I find that such interpretations can only contribute to an overall impression in which aesthetic appreciation of light and colour, awareness of symbol, and a sense of cultural context merge with a recognition of Piero della Francesca’s overall moral and spiritual purpose. My understanding of Jesus as a figure and of the archetypes he invokes are both affected by this picture and feed back into my understanding of it. It seems to be not for nothing that this is such an acclaimed picture in the history of art.

The picture can be seen in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London.

Links to earlier art blogs by Robert M Ellis: 

The Tower of Babel by Breughel

The Annunciation by Simone di Martini 

Index to further art blogs by Norma Smith

Not presuming too much about Dr Livingstone

David Livingstone, Christian missionary and explorer of central Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, is quite an extraordinary, often contradictory, figure. Born in poverty and as a child working fourteen hour days in a factory in Blantyre, Scotland, he gained an education, became a qualified doctor and trained for mission out of sheer determination. As a missionary in what is now Botswana, though, after a while he went AWOL, quarrelling with his fellow missionaries and setting off on his own pioneering exploratory projects deeper into the unknown interior. He eventually became famous back in Britain as an explorer, and blazed the trail that later led to British intervention and colonisation in Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The most famous thing that many people remember about him was his meeting with Henry Morton Stanley at Ujiji, with Stanley’s legendary greeting ‘Dr LIvingstone, I presume?’: however, like many such famous sayings, this one probably never happened at the time, but was a later construction.Livingstone meets Stanley

My interest in Livingstone has been developing since late last year, when, after the death of my father, I started reading the copy of Livingstone’s account of his earlier travels from my father’s bookshelves. I later followed this up by reading Livingstone’s biography by Tim Jeal. My father was also a missionary in Africa, as was my grandfather, and I have always struggled with feelings of ambivalence about their work – work that, though it changed a great deal during the course of the twentieth century, owed a great deal to Livingstone’s long-term influence. Were the Christian missionaries the agents of Africa’s ruin at the hands of colonial exploitation, or were they self-sacrificing heroes who helped to provide Africans with the basic tools of future development? Obviously both these extremes are misleading caricatures, but I wanted to  find out enough to draw some kind of justifiable conclusion in between. Livingstone was not a typical missionary at all, but due to his subsequent influence he was a good place to start. How can one possibly apply the Middle Way in assessing the character, achievements and legacy of such a figure?

Well, to start with we could identify several extremes of presumption that depend on dogmas and are thus better avoided. One obvious one is the idealisation of Livingstone, projecting a hero archetype on him without awareness of the complex man behind the legend. The Livingstone Museum in Blantyre, Scotland, which I have visited, is rather guilty of this one-dimensional adulation. We can learn a great deal there about Livingstone’s phenomenal determination, endless endurance, tolerant kindness towards all Africans, stoicism in the face of endless tropical diseases and other hardships, and faith in what he believed to be God’s purpose for him. However, we won’t learn much there about the Shadow side: his monomania, arrogance, rash over-optimism, habit of quarrelling with others, stubbornness, and willingness to sacrifice others’ lives for his own ends. Much of the subsequent idealisation of Livingstone developed from the write-up he was given by Stanley, a journalist who thought him a new saint. Livingstone’s overwhelming sense of mission but serious lack of self-awareness is a kind of extreme representation of the strengths and weaknesses of Victorian Protestantism (some might even say of Christianity) in general.

But opposite to the absolutisation of Livingstone as an exemplar of a set of Christian values, there is an equally dogmatic dismissal of him, from those who see nothing good in what he was trying to do, and who fail to recognise the complexity of the values at work in that context. At the heart of this opposite response may lie moral relativism, implying that the values of pre-colonial African tribes must have been ‘right for them’ and thus that they were necessarily better off without interference. Accompanying this there might also be anti-colonial political beliefs, with perhaps (from Westerners such as myself) a dose of post-colonial guilt. But pre-colonial Africa was not a paradise, and it was not untouched by outsiders. There was much conflict between tribes including feudal dominance by some over others, routine enslavement of the losers in tribal wars, and well-established slave trading conducted both by the Portuguese and the Arabs. As to whether other common features of African society, such as polygamy, or victimisation due to witchcraft beliefs, would have been better left alone because the alternatives offered by Christian culture were necessarily worse for them – well, this strikes me as at least debatable, and hardly to be assumed without question. There is clearly a big danger of falling into the nirvana fallacy when assessing such things: just because colonial Christian culture had many weaknesses and injustices, we cannot assume that it was worse than the alternatives.

Other conditions that Livingstone’s contemporaries had to face up to were those of cultural inequality and colonial competition. Like it or not, the Africans were in an extremely vulnerable position relative to the West, due to their relative lack of technological, social and political development. If one nation, such as the British, did not adopt colonialist strategies, then not only might practices such as the slave trade persist, but other European nations might well jump in and inflict much worse. This happened, notoriously, in the ‘Congo Free State’ between 1885 and 1908, where Leopold of Belgium ruled a vast area of the Congo basin as a personal fiefdom and inflicted extreme forms of exploitation on the native population. The claim that ‘if we didn’t do it, others would’ can easily be used as an excuse for untrammelled capitalist exploitation, but the underlying point can also be correct. Though earlier on in his career Livingstone often seemed to feel that Africans were better off without interference from outside, later on he urged the British government to establish colonies as the basis for safer missionary activity. In arguing thus we could make a case that he was simply facing up to the conditions of the time.

Another element that may make Livingstone’s legacy controversial for many today is the very idea of religious conversion. We may regard a missionary as someone whose job is to make converts to their religion:  a process that might at the same time be highly disruptive to that person and their social context, and yet in other ways be superficial, involving the adoption of new absolute beliefs that may well be in conflict with the wider experience of the converted person. ‘Conversion’ in this sense is perhaps one of the worst features of religious absolutism and illustrates its fragility. However, his biographer wryly notes that despite Livingstone’s fame, he was by conventional standards a failure as a missionary, making only one African convert (the chief Sechele) who subsequently relapsed. However, in my view it is that very failure that forms the basis of Livingstone’s most admirable features. At quite an early stage Livingstone seems to have realised that trying to convert Africans to Christianity without an accompanying wider social and cultural change was both fruitless and unhelpful. Sechele himself illustrates this, as he tried to become a good Christian by giving up four of his five wives: of course this created widespread disruption and offence in his society. That also set up a conflict in Sechele which culminated in him committing ‘adultery’ with one of his former wives. Livingstone left Sechele’s township shortly afterwards.

Instead of converting people, Livingstone recognised that he would make a much more positive contribution to the lives of Africans by the more incremental use of cultural influence. Though he often spoke about Christianity (using magic lantern shows), this amounted to little more than spreading awareness, and he was also much concerned with providing medical aid when he could and with challenging the slave trade. One of his biggest obsessions was the belief that in order to give up the slave trade, Africans needed a positive alternative in the shape of legitimate trade that enabled them to access Western goods in exchange for other resources. To support legitimate trade, he sought out navigable rivers that would provide viable routes into the interior, and later urged the development of British colonisation that could provide protection and infrastructure as well as challenging slave-trading. Livingstone thus recognised the inter-relationship of different aspects of development, and thus the fruitlessness of pursuing narrow goals in isolation. That he was a ‘failure’ as a missionary was thus in many ways to Livingstone’s credit, and put him in harmony with some more recent liberal Christian attitudes to mission that are more concerned with development than direct persuasion.

Livingstone also developed an interest in the scientific aspects of exploration, both in creating accurate maps and in recording the flora, fauna and geology of the region. Livingstone’s journals are full of lengthy asides in which he writes in some detail about some aspect of the country, such as the behaviour of red ants or hippopotami, or the varieties of fruit and the prospects for their cultivation. It seems clear that for him, ‘Creation’ was not merely an absolute or abstract idea, but also an experience of fascinated engagement with the world. Often he writes with similar appreciativeness about the customs of the people – to such an extent that it is jarring when one suddenly runs into a more typical Victorian complaint about, say,  idol-worship, grotesque body art and ornamentation, or the unashamed nakedness of African ‘ladies’. Of course, Livingstone was a Victorian, but he also had remarkably wide interests and sympathies that he was able to apply in a totally new environment.

Livingstone’s temperament, however, was in many other ways antipathetic to the Middle Way. He was an obsessive, driven by successive schemes such as those of proving the rivers Zambezi and Shire navigable (both turned out to be blocked by major rapids) or finding the ‘Four Fountains of Herodotus’ as the source of the Nile. His final expedition, particularly, is a sad story of delusion drawing close to madness, as Livingstone gambled away his health and life on the false certainty of finding the source of the Nile further south than other explorers had placed it. Wandering around eastern Africa with very few of the necessary resources or followers, subject to lengthy bouts of fever that meant he often had to be carried, Livingstone became increasingly isolated from European peers who might have challenged his fixations. He was relieved only by his meeting with Stanley, who lionised him rather than puncturing his delusions. It was not so much his Christian beliefs as his geographical ones that were the source of absolutisation that was Livingstone’s undoing. But of course the two were also connected, because Livingstone evidently had unassailable views about himself and about the path set for him by God: a path that he came to increasingly see in geographical terms. It is these kinds of states that led him apparently not to care when his European followers were killed on the disastrous Zambezi Expedition, and to a coldness in which others seemingly became tools in his grand designs.

However, without this intense single-mindedness, Livingstone would never have been who he was. He would never have studied Latin after a fourteen hour day in the cotton mill, and thus not managed to escape his background. He would also probably have achieved far less as an explorer. Should we wish that those with intense left-hemisphere dominance did not have it, when it was so constitutive of who they were and what they did? I think not. Would Livingstone’s career have been more consistently successful if he had been able to introduce a more balanced perspective, albeit from his skewed starting point? Perhaps. But rather than indulge in counter-factual speculations that depend on hindsight, it’s probably better to recognise that we don’t know how far Livingstone’s less savoury qualities were inextricable from his more positive ones. Somewhere, there was probably a better balance that could have been struck, but only Livingstone himself could have found that point of balance without betraying the very things we admire about him.

So should we revere ‘great men’ like Livingstone, who did extraordinary things that were often at the expense of balanced judgement? Of course, I’m going to suggest that we should strike a balance, not revering them unconditionally, but also trying to appreciate positively what they did achieve. That balanced position is probably more powerful than mere hero-worship in the long run, because it relates to our wider experience rather than just our uncritical, abstract constructions of heroism. For the same reason, I think a biography that reveals the complexity of a historical figure is much more powerful than a hagiography that portrays a one-sided view of them. In the process of engaging with them in such a balanced way, we also simultaneously engage with aspects of ourselves, and by understanding Livingstone better, I feel I have got a little bit further in understanding the complex issues that lie behind the actions of my missionary ancestors.



One hundred podcasts: A retrospective

With the recent  podcast interview with Karen Armstrong, Barry Daniel (with occasional assistance from Susan Averbach) has now completed one hundred podcasts. Congratulations Barry! To mark my appreciation of this significant achievement, I want to celebrate the podcasts in general and pick out a few highlights.

When the society was first founded, in 2013, Barry quite early on had the idea of doing podcast interviews to stimulate discussion in and around the Middle Way. Podcasts were then, and remain, a popular format for communication and exploration of ideas on the web. Of course there were lots of popular podcasts that we could emulate, but perhaps one substantial prior influence that should be acknowledged is Ted Meissner with his Secular Buddhist podcasts (even though the MWS podcasts are also very different from Ted’s!).podcast interviews

We also had ideas about the role the podcasts would play in the society, and what would make them distinctively different from other podcasts. The Middle Way and Middle Way Philosophy is unusual in being rarely discussed in explicit terms, but nevertheless being widely appreciated implicitly, and having many overlapping areas of interest. So the main task of the podcasts is not so much to expound the Middle Way explicitly, as to explore some of the huge range of related ideas and practices as they are found in the live experiences of people. In that way we hope to touch on the interests of a wide variety of people, and stimulate discussion of the Middle Way from a variety of perspectives.

In many ways Barry was exactly the right person for that job. It primarily needed someone who was good at engaging with people and listening, which are amongst Barry’s prime skills in my experience. Of course, it also required a lot of hard work: contacting people to set up the podcasts, doing the interviews, sound-editing them, creating a visual version for YouTube and publishing them online. I know that Barry also does a lot of careful preparation in other respects – for example, often reading the book of an author before he interviews them about it, and consulting about the best questions to ask. So the podcast also requires someone with wide interests and curiosity about a range of subjects: again, Barry’s your man.

Nearly three years on, then, what do I think the podcasts have achieved? Well, there are a wide range of people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines who have all communicated something helpful and inspiring to the podcast audience. All these people have also been asked that ultimate or penultimate question: “What is your understanding of the Middle Way, and how might it relate to what we’ve been talking about?” and in the process of answering it, the interviewees have engaged with the core ideals of the society. Some knew nothing explicit about the Middle Way, whilst others had well-developed ideas about it, but all have made new connections. Some interviewees have stayed in touch, become personal friends, and even joined the society. A few, of course, were already members before they were interviewed. The podcasts have thus created a wide range of connections, both intellectual and social.

The answers to that question about the Middle Way have varied enormously in style and approach, but there are very few, if any, with which I would disagree as characterisations of the Middle Way – all of which goes to show the huge variety of ways it could potentially be approached and understood, without losing a basic similarity. That similarity comes from our shared experience as human beings of what sorts of attitudes are progressive, helpful or integrative, and how these contrast with dogmatic positions whether positive or negative. To get a taste of the variety of answers to that question, have a listen to episodes 29 and 30, where Barry collected together the first batch of answers he received.podcastDropdown

Any selection I could offer you of the best podcasts is inevitably going to reflect my own tastes, and the easiest way of selecting them according to your own is to look at the podcast list page or any of the thematic pages that spring from it on the menu above (see picture). But here are some of the ones that I personally think are most important or interesting.

In Episode 6, Barry interviewed Iain McGilchrist, the author of ‘The Master and his Emissary’, the wide-ranging and important book on brain lateralisation and its effects on human thought and culture. Iain is the patron of the society, and his work has many connections with the Middle Way, as we can understand the Middle Way as avoiding the absolutisations created by the over-dominant left hemisphere of the brain. This link between the Middle Way and the brain was also explored further in the dialogue I had with Iain in episode 33.

Episode 32 with Ed Catmull is another early highlight. Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar and Disney Animation and a life member of the society. His connection with the Middle Way comes from his own experience of developing a business that fosters creativity: creativity that can only be found in the ‘messy middle’ that Ed talks about.

Episode 39 with Stephen Hayes is by far the most popular podcast, having over 16,000 views on YouTube. This is an in-depth exploration of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, illustrating just one of the very many links that can be made between the Middle Way and psychotherapy. Barry has also interviewed some important academic psychologists whose ideas bear a close relationship to the Middle Way, such as Ellen Langer and Elliott Aronson; as well as neuroscientists, philosophers, social scientists, environmental thinkers, politicians, and scholars of religion.

But if that gives you the impression that the podcasts are rather academic in flavour, it’s important to stress that they’re also often about telling personal stories or discussing practices. Some of the most moving podcasts in the series are with Arno Michaelis, a former racist skinhead, and Bjorn Ihler, survivor of a massacre on a Norwegian island. Both of these have inspiring stories to tell about an integrative journey that involved moving away from the absolute positions associated with hatred. Then to my mind one of the best podcasts about practice is the one with Elizabeth English, teacher of focusing. But there are also discussions of (for example) Tai Chi, biofeedback, sleep, ethics, politics, and building community.

That doesn’t exhaust the riches of the podcasts at all. I haven’t even dropped all the famous names Barry has interviewed. But I’ll limit myself to a small and personal selection here. There’s one final one I must mention. In episode 69, Barry himself was interviewed by Susan Averbach. So, if you want to find out more about the interviewer, that’s the place to go! I’ll embed that video at the foot of this blog.

What about the future of the podcasts? Well, Barry still seems to be going strong, but I know that he would very much appreciate some help. Susan Averbach has helped out by doing a few interviews, which has been a good way of varying the voice and style of the podcasts, and there could be scope for more people to get involved in interviewing. However, it’s at the time -consuming ‘back end’, i.e. the editing, that I’m sure Barry would most appreciate offers of help. In addition, if you have ideas of future people for Barry to interview, or you want to be interviewed yourself, just get in touch with Barry (at If the podcasts have weaknesses, these will also be best raised and addressed by new people with new perspectives getting involved. If it becomes more of a shared venture and less dependent on one individual, I’m sure the podcasts can continue to engage new people in thinking afresh about the Middle Way in the long term.

The MWS Podcast 100: Karen Armstrong on Religion and the Charter for Compassion

We are joined today by the religious historian and best-selling author Karen Armstrong who has been described as “arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today” (Wikipedia). She is perhaps best known for her books on comparative religion, including A History of God, A Short History of Myth and The Spiral Staircase. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule and her latest book Fields of Blood challenges the notion that the wars are generally caused by religion. She received the TED prize in 2008 which was the impetus for the creation of The Charter for Compassion, a document which urges the peoples and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion. She’s going to talk to us today about religion, the Charter for Compassion and how they might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 100: Karen Armstrong as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_100_Karen_Armstrong

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