All posts by Jim Champion

About Jim Champion

As a student Jim specialised in theoretical physics, up to PhD level, and then trained as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham. In 2004 he returned to Hampshire to teach physics. He first encountered the Middle Way Society in 2015, and has been practicing The Middle Way ever since.

Creativity, reason and the seasons: representing autumn

Have a good look at the photograph above. To me, it so perfectly captures what I think of as autumn. The variety of mellow colours in the fallen leaves, the gentle sunlight, the lengthening shadows. And yet the image has been carefully constructed, so as to give an impression of a natural scene that is more autumnal than anything you’ll find out there at the moment beneath the deciduous trees of the northern temperate regions. How do I know this? Because I created it.

Earlier this week, on a murky afternoon I took my son for a walk. We went to the local park and as we walked around it I carefully gathered a variety of leaves, differing in shape, size, colour and texture. He helped, with increasing enthusiasm, and seemed most amused by trying to outdo my efforts by finding leaves that were even larger than the ones that I’d found. We carried the leaves back home and I spread them out to dry. I had an idea that I would photograph them later on, but my plans were no more specific than that.

On a morning a few days later I noticed that the sunlight coming in through the windows at the back of the house was particularly mellow and ‘autumnal’  – and that seemed like the right opportunity to do something with the dried leaves that were, by now, jumbled and curling inside a large shopping bag. With the help of a tripod, for stability, I photographed individual leaves lying on the sunlit floor of my back room; I photographed individual leaves back-lit by the sunlight coming in through the patio doors; finally, I heaped all the leaves on a well-lit part of the floor and took several photographs of the pile, making minor adjustments to the arrangement between exposures.

I immediately moved on to the final stage of the process – I reviewed the digital images on a larger screen, deleting some, in fact many, but retaining the others that seemed to have most ‘potential’. And then I applied some post-processing to these images, partly to compensate for the limitations of the hardware-software combinations of the camera that made the final image differ from my subjective perception of the scene as it appeared to me directly, and partly to accentuate features, textures, colour and shadow so that they were more satisfying to my aesthetic sensibility.

So, this morning when I was running through Southampton Common – for those not familiar with the place, it is a large public space for recreation in the city, with many paths through areas of very mature deciduous woodland – several threads of thought coincided and I realised that this photographic image that I’d made, so autumnal that it almost hurts to look at it, was a representation of nothing that could actually be found ‘out there’ in my surroundings. If a friend asked me to take them and show them where this autumnal scene lay so that they could behold it with their own eyes, I’d not be able to do this – not without reconstructing the leafy jumble on my back room floor. It would be really improbable to find the leaves from such a wide variety of tree species in one small location like this!

The creative process that led to the eventual appearance of this photograph on facebook / twitter Instagramflickr involved a sequence of deliberate choices, guided throughout by the idealised concept of “autumn” that I held in mind. I had chosen to go out at a particular time in the season. I selected certain leaves to make sure that I had a range of sizes, species and a progression of colours. I chose to dry the leaves (although this was partly down to convenience – I didn’t have the time to take any photographs while the leaves were still wet). I chose to photograph the leaves indoors, mainly so the wind didn’t blow them around, under very particular ‘natural’ lighting conditions. And finally, I rejected the images from the camera card that didn’t appeal to me, and digitally processed the surviving photos so that they looked the way I wanted them to.

My point, I think, is that this kind of practical engagement with practising a creative art such as photography reveals a lot about what I find meaningful about the idealised concept of ‘autumn’ that I’ve created for myself. Before I’d even started this mini-project I already had an idea of what this autumnal image would look like, and the steps along the way involved continual refinement, calculated manipulation of my surroundings in order to incrementally bring my creation closer to the ideal concept that I held.

In this way, the left-brain mode of awareness, of conceptualising the world as being full of tools to be manipulated in order to produce specific outcomes, is an important part of the creative/artistic process. Dumbed-down pop psychology references to “right-brain people” being the expressive, creative, artistic ones are just that – a grossly over-simplified model. The process involves an integration of the modes of both brain hemispheres, and artistic maturity is likely to depend on the ineffable openness to experience that the right-mode provides in order to challenge the left-mode certainties that can trap us in fixed ways of seeing and thinking about our view of the world.

I think I’m recommending a kind of balance here, between the different hemispheric modes. Don’t be discouraged from taking part in creative and artistic practices because you don’t “have it in you”; if this sounds like you then you might make progress by understanding that creative processes require a combination of both right- and left-modes of thinking rather than it being the preserve of one brain hemisphere alone. On the other hand, if you do enthusiastically take part in creative and artistic practices, don’t repress the idea that the left-brain mode of thinking is an essential part of it all. Although it is possible to allow the reasoning, analytic side of awareness to over-dominate and perhaps derail your creative projects by bringing about too much rigidity or obsession with technical purity, but if a healthy balance is achieved then getting stuck can be avoided and new meaning and enjoyment can arise.

To conclude, I’m going to mention a different aspect of my concept of ‘autumn’, one that I have no idea yet how to express artistically. About a year ago, I was running on one of the narrow tarmac paths on Southampton Common and as I bounced along there was a continual skittering, swooshing sound following me down the path. It was the scraping of dry leaves on the tarmac, caught in the disturbed air that I left in my wake. For a few moments, before I over-thought it, I had a sense of being one moving part of the world, gently stirring other parts of the world which then danced around me. Anyway, words don’t really do justice to that subjective experience I had, so I’ll pop it on the creative back-burner and see what happens.

Appropriate agnosticism: navigating around the tempest in Russell’s teapot

The fact that I’m slightly wary of the prospect of ‘outing’ myself as an agnostic in this article shows that there is an issue here that I ought to address. I think most of those who know me reasonably well would imagine that I would prefer to be categorised as an atheist… but the confusion that I may create by suggesting that I’m agnostic rather than an atheist can hopefully be turned into a learning opportunity with regards to Middle Way philosophy.

TL;DR version One can be agnostic about more than the existence or non-existence of God, and one should not confuse agnosticism with wishy-washy indecisiveness, fence-sitting, uncertainty or appeasement of people who hold proudly to absolute beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological repression and sociological harm. There are everyday situations in which agnosticism is the more ethical position as it steers the agnostic away from metaphysical dilemmas and towards provisional beliefs that have the possibility of being integrated, reducing the amount of unhelpful repression required of the believer.

In a letter of 1958, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.” [1]

This teapot analogy was first mentioned in an unpublished article of 1952 titled Is There a God?, in which he wanted to make clear that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. However, in the quote above Russell is using the teapot analogy to explain why he considers himself to effectively be an atheist rather than a theological agnostic, and this is the way that I have seen the teapot analogy called upon most often, for example by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins.

An instance of Dawkins’ use of the teapot analogy is worth quoting at length because I want to argue here that this kind of argument misses the point:

A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But “agnostic” on its own might suggest that he thought God’s existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about God, he considers God’s existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy’s. … Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.” [2]

If I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of Russell’s teapot then I would be expressing a weak agnostic position. I would essentially be saying that I was suspending my belief in the existence or non-existence of the teapot as it was not currently possible for me to know one way or the other, to any degree: I would be awaiting suitably persuasive evidence from experience, that in principle could arrive later… but I might be in for a very long wait.

Claiming this kind of agnosticism is unnecessary because the beliefs involved can be held provisionally, and also incrementally (that is, to a degree of certainty). If pressed to express an opinion, I would say that I believed in the existence of Russell’s teapot, but to only a very small extent – or, alternatively, that I believed in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot to a very great extent. That’s the incremental side. The extent of my beliefs could be altered by new evidence to arrive through my experience: perhaps altered very greatly if my astronaut friend returned home from a trip to space, bearing Russell’s teapot as a souvenir of her journey… although even then I would suspect that she was playing a philosophical prank. That is the provisional side – the ability to modify the belief in response to new evidence.

Russell’s teapot exists and Russell’s teapot does not exist are not a pair of opposing absolute claims because the truth or falsity of these claims depends on evidence that we could, in principle, experience. That said, I can find the idea of the existence of Russell’s teapot meaningful, even if I believe it to be very unlikely – in the same way that I can find the fictional characters depicted in films and books to be meaningful, even though the chances of them existing may be very slim.

However, to bring the discussion back to theology, if I were to say that I was agnostic regarding the existence or non-existence of God then I would be expressing a strong agnostic position about an absolute belief. As a finite and fallible human being my embodied limitations prevent me from accessing evidence about a perfect metaphysical being, so I cannot hold a weak agnostic position about this pair of opposed beliefs: if my astronaut friend returned from space claiming in all seriousness that she had ‘met God’ out there I could concede that she’d had a meaningful religious experience, but it wouldn’t constitute evidence of the existence of God.

The belief in the existence or non-existence of God is absolute because there is no scope for incrementality – it either is, or it isn’t, and my belief in it is not open to evidence that arrives through my experience as an embodied human being. Furthermore, there is no way that such a belief can be held provisionally – I could only flip between the two absolute poles. These opposing beliefs cannot be successfully integrated, so the only Middle Way route is to navigate a course of agnosticism between the two poles.

Going beyond theological agnosticism
The way that I’ve talked about the God/no-God situation so far is perhaps almost as trivial as the teapot/no-teapot situation. In my everyday life, I am not faced with a metaphysical dilemma between the existence or non-existence of a perfect God-like being, except in the occasional quiet moment of speculation. I certainly do not have to face Inquisitors who want to verify my adherence to their theological dogmas; I don’t even have to attend church on Sunday mornings out of social obligation. What I am faced with are very specific truth-claims and value-judgements made by adherents of various religions and denominations within those religions, and also by those who reject religion and favour other, more secular approaches.

Unlike the general musing on the God/no-God question, these more specific religious beliefs have specific ethical implications in my diet, my sex life, my profession, my health and treatment of my ill-health and so on. Must I take an agnostic position about these positive and negative beliefs, even if it seems like a proliferation of absurd teapot-like trivialities? The straightforward answer is yes. However, this usually seems to be unacceptable to people who have little understanding of the Middle Way: it seems absurd that I should be agnostic about the belief that, for example, I should not cook meat and dairy produce in the same meal.

As a non-Jewish person living in a non-Jewish culture, couldn’t I just say no, I don’t believe that meat and dairy must be kept separate because the laws of Kashrut in the Torah say they should? The determining factor is whether the belief in question is absolute: if the very formulation of the belief means that it cannot be held provisionally and that it cannot be incrementalised, then the middle way is to remain agnostic about it. In the kashrut case mentioned above, the Torah says that I must separate meat and dairy and that’s the end of it. I am either to believe it or not: I cannot believe it to some extent because the belief is based on an appeal to the absolute authority of the Torah.

In short, if ever an issue reduces down to being ‘a self-evident belief’ (or, as is often said, a matter of ‘faith alone’) then it is something that the Middle Way requires us to be agnostic about. An obvious example is the claim that a book, such as the Book of Mormon, is the truth from God as revealed to Joseph Smith via the angel Moroni. As implausible as it seems to me, the truth of this claim (or its counterclaim) relies on belief alone, and as such, I should remain agnostic about it. Dogmatically stating that the Book of Mormon is not God’s revealed truth is as unhelpful as dogmatically stating that it is – and by ‘unhelpful’ I mean not conducive to integration. The Salvation Army’s eleven articles of faith that I affirmed as a teenager are a textbook example of a set of beliefs that are a matter of ‘faith alone’.

Pragmatically speaking, it is very easy for me to avoid getting involved in disputes about the validity of the metaphysical claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as I don’t live in Utah. Similarly, I’ve not been involved with the Salvation Army for 20 years, so my agnosticism about their articles of faith is somewhat of a moot point. It wouldn’t be so easy if, for example, I was a full-time physics teacher in a Catholic school in the UK. That’s a lot closer to my own lived experience (I trained in such a school for three months in 2004) – and I can imagine that if I worked in such an establishment now I’d be fighting hard to resist sceptical slippage – but that’s a topic for another time!

Does agnosticism annoy some noisy atheists?
So, to return to the Richard Dawkins kind of objection to agnosticism, the following quote [3] exemplifies what he finds unacceptable:

Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.” [3]

Dawkins’ objection is to a kind of relativism that bestows equal value on belief in God and disbelief in God. I hope I’ve been clear enough in what I’ve written above that the agnosticism that is part of the Middle Way is not of this ilk. One cannot integrate belief in the existence of God and belief in the non-existence of God due to their opposed absolute statuses, and thus it is not an area that is worth shouting ourselves hoarse about.

Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, are very vocal about the harm that they consider to result from religious belief, but they may have slightly missed the point that the harm (or lack of integration) comes from the absolute beliefs that are considered part of most traditional religions, and not from the religions in general. In short: religion is not the problem, absolute beliefs are the problem. Other, non-religious, ideologies often make the same error of remaining beholden to absolute beliefs – which may have the advantage of allowing groups to survive due to the sociological ‘binding’ effect of absolute beliefs – but a dogmatic Marxist is going to have the same problem integrating their beliefs as a dogmatic Roman Catholic.

Concluding remarks
In the current climate of highly-polarised opinions in broadcast and social media, it would be beneficial if we could be clear about the most helpful applications of agnosticism, and why it is not a position that needs to trouble us with regards to provisional beliefs such as belief in the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. It would also help if we could focus on the problem (absolute beliefs) and not so much on the contexts with which those absolute beliefs are most often associated – in this way we could avoid unhelpful dismissal and dehumanisation of people that we would do better to engage with. The final thing is that there is a way to positively benefit from remaining agnostic on absolute beliefs (such as metaphysical beliefs), and as it is far from easy there are small but growing organisations like the Middle Way Society who want to promote the kind of practices that aid rather than inhibit integration.


Afterword
I would like to add a few remarks here about how I came to write the above article. The first thing is that I was looking again at the idea of agnosticism and the Middle Way in preparation for a discussion group meeting about the fifth of the Introductory series of videos. Although I’d come across the idea of agnosticism before in Middle Way Philosophy, I don’t think I’d understood the bigger picture. Returning to it has certainly helped.

The second thing is that I was motivated to clarify my thoughts and feelings about it by the idea that if I “came out” as a theological agnostic to my friends then most of them would probably be surprised that I hadn’t chosen to claim the position of ‘atheist’, or even ‘atheist agnostic’, rather than simply ‘agnostic’. For those who don’t know me so well, I’m a physics teacher by profession and a theoretical physicist by training; I haven’t been a practicing Christian for over 20 years now, I rarely talk about God or other supernatural entities, I don’t express opinions that would make others think that my ethical outlook is motivated by a belief in a perfect creator God, and so on. For those who are reading this in the USA: very roughly speaking, the default position in the UK is that of atheism, with maybe a nod to the Christian cultural heritage of this country… some recent surveys suggest that more than 50% of the population consider themselves to be ‘of no religion’.  This is more than a discussion about definition of terms and epistemology (how do we know what we know) – I believe that it matters that I would categorise myself as a strong agnostic, not because I want to ‘leave the door open’ for supernatural theologies, but because it leads to the broader and more helpful Middle Way stance on absolute beliefs generally.

The third thing is that when I started to type up my thoughts, I didn’t have a very good grasp of exactly what it was that I was trying to argue for (or against!). I went down the rabbit-hole of reading comments on YouTube videos about agnosticism, but not so far that I couldn’t get out easily before getting trapped in the toxic sludge. This really helped to clarify what I was up against, as were some clips from an episode of South Park in which Kenny and his siblings are sent to live with militant agnostic foster parents.

The usual difficulty arises when attempting to write on a topic like this: make it too short and you’ll be misunderstood, but trying to make yourself understood leads to more words than most are willing to read in the era of tweets and terse Facebook comments typed hurridly whilst doing something else. That said, thanks for reading this to the very end!


References

  1. Bertrand Russell (1958) Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).
  2. Richard Dawkins, ‘A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet,’ Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.
  3. Richard Dawkins, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’ FORBES ASAP, October 4, 1999

Further reading

Picture credits

Mindsets and the Middle Way in education

In my job teaching physics to young people from ages 11-18, I often encounter unhelpful absolutisations that act as barriers to the students being able to address conditions. For example, if a student is finding it hard to do the work that I expect them to be able to do, they may say things like “But I am no good at physics!” (absolutising the subject) or “But physics is impossible to understand!” (absolutising the object). Either way, the student who holds these kinds of beliefs has their judgement clouded by the delusions created by conceiving things in absolute terms. If instead, the student can understand the situation incrementally then they’re more likely to be able to follow the most basic imperative in Middle Way philosophy by making judgements about their learning on the basis of beliefs that are as free from delusion as possible. In this article, I explore the connection between the Middle Way practice of incrementality and the ‘mindset’ model in teaching practice.

Two mindsets

The mindset model in education was first proposed by Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett in their 1998 paper A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. In the formulation of this model that is well known in modern educational circles, absolutising one’s self (e.g. “But I am no good at physics!”) is a judgement made by a student with a ‘fixed mindset’. The graphic by Nigel Holmes (below) sums up this belief using the phrase “Intelligence is static”. In my example, the student believes that their intelligence with regards to physics problems is static and cannot be further developed. This maintains a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where the student – in order to save face – avoids challenges, gives up easily when encountering obstacles, sees effort as fruitless and thus ignores useful criticism. They feel threatened by the success of others (whom the student regards as innately and absolutely “Good at physics”) and through a lack of engagement they fail to make the kind of progress with learning physics that they would otherwise make.

The second, more productive mindset is referred to as a ‘growth mindset’. It does not represent the opposite absolutisation (i.e. believing that “I am good at physics!” or “Physics is easy!” – which are really just another kind of fixed but positive mindset) but a middle way which recognises that intelligence can be developed, but only if the subject is willing to allow it to develop. Avoiding the fixed mindset means that a student will embrace (appropriate) challenges, persist in the face of setbacks (to a reasonable extent), and to see effort as the path to mastery. A more adequate self-correcting feedback loop is established because the student is open to learning from useful criticism, and they can find lessons and inspiration from the success of others. By experiencing progress in their study of physics they have a greater sense of being responsible for their ability to learn, avoiding the absolute of determinism.

Why do students believe in a fixed mindset?

As usual, the reasons for the entrenchment of a fixed mindset are complex. However, one really obvious factor is the attitude of influential members of earlier generations: parents, teachers, voices in the media. When some people first discover that I am employed as a physics teacher they seem to be quite happy to immediately tell me that they “were never any good at physics” or that they “dropped physics as soon as they could when they were at school”. I don’t get the impression they’re doing this to avoid feeling intimidated by the knowledge and understanding that I have that presumably they don’t. It appears acceptable to them to believe that people either ‘get’ physics or they don’t – and this sidesteps having to consider whether they were taught in a competent way, or whether they made the necessary effort to learn physics when they were being taught. It may be that they never saw the relevance of understanding physics (which, up to some age, they were compelled to study) and that they’ve never noticed any adverse effects of a lack of physics in their lives so far.

There are also the gender-related expectations communicated (wittingly, or unwittingly) to young people, which vary in their precise details but seem to be well represented in the stereotype of physics and engineering as being “boys’ subjects”. There have been studies of the factors behind gender-imbalance in the take-up of certain A-level subjects in schools in England and Wales, and I’ve been involved in a minor way with the Institute of Physics’ Improving gender balance project which is investigating the effectiveness of different strategies which aim to improve the balance in subjects with a disproportionate number of boys (or girls!). I’ve not done any formal analysis of the numbers of boys and girls who tell me that they’re “No good at physics!” or they think that “Physics is too difficult.” but I certainly hear it from both boys and girls, although perhaps slightly more often from girls.

A third thing that encourages the fixed mindset is the way that famous physicists are presented to students as ‘geniuses’, both in popular culture and perhaps unwittingly also within school education, where we should perhaps know better. Albert Einstein is the classic example. The problem with the genius model of excellence in science is that it reinforces the idea that you have to be innately special to excel at physics, and that it is only a very few people who are lucky enough to have this rare talent. Einstein once made the modest claim that “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” This kind of remark that hints at a growth mindset gets lost in the hype and mythos surrounding Einstein the eccentric genius, the ‘one of a kind’ plaudits, which seem to be so much more palatable to the general public.

Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom

How, then, can I encourage students to believe the growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset? One way is to model a growth mindset myself. At the time of writing, we are five weeks into the new school year and I’m still struggling to accurately remember the names of all the children that I’ve not taught in previous years. The most acute case is my science class of 11 year-olds, who are completely new to the school. I am making a point of explaining to them how I’m going about remembering their names, as it isn’t something that comes easily to me. I’m modelling the growth mindset in action by embracing the challenge with good humour (I’ve got to learn their names, so I might as well have fun doing it), I’m persisting in the face of setbacks (keeping on trying to use their names, even when I get it wrong so often), I’m showing that I’m making an effort (refusing their help until I really really need it, and then encouraging clues rather than just supplying the forgotten name) and I’m learning from their criticism (which more recently has involved them suggesting helpful mnemonics). They’ve helped in this by providing an environment in which it is safe for me to fail over and over again, and by praising my effort rather than any innate ability to remember names with ease.

Providing opportunities for failure to occur in a safe way so that students can learn that (repeated) failure is usually a necessary step towards better understanding a subject. The earlier this can be put into practice, the better – I meet a lot of students (even the older ones, who are working at quite a high level of achievement in physics) who would rather not try at all than try and encounter failure. A classic example of this is students sitting and waiting for me (or someone else) to reveal “the correct answer” to a problem that they are supposed to be trying to solve themselves. A superficial examination of the reasons for this yields answers like “Well, there’s no point me writing stuff down if it is wrong!”.

A third technique involves making careful use of the way that I speak to students about the inherent challenge in the process of learning. The most useful advice I’ve had about this is about appending the word ‘yet’ to fixed mindset phrases that students use: for example, “I don’t get this” becomes “I don’t get this yet” or “I’m not good enough to do the exam” becomes “I’m not yet good enough to do the exam”. The word ‘yet’ is not essential, of course, as can be seen from the example of how “There’s no way I can do this” can become “I can’t see a way of doing this right now.” This more or less seems to amount to skilful use of provisionality markers, as previously discussed in one of Robert’s blog posts.

A fourth involves incrementalising absolutes by persistent questioning to go from the general to the specific. For example, a student who comes to a revision lesson may say “I don’t understand anything in physics!”, to which I respond “Give me an example of something you don’t understand.” and so on until you’ve gone from a blanket rejection of the whole subject to something quite specific, like not realising that a term like ‘resultant force’ just means something like the ‘overall force’, rather than being a new type of force in addition to things like friction, weight, air resistance and so on.

A final simple practice involves a general ‘no hands up’ policy during teacher-led questioning in the classroom. I’ve been amazed at the difference this simple technique makes. Previously, with children putting their hands up to indicate that they want to be picked to answer a question, those who considered themselves to be ‘no good’ at the subject could opt out by not ever putting their hand up. The division between those who considered themselves ‘no good’ and those who thought that they could answer would be reinforced in a feedback loop. A better practice is to make it clear that anyone could be called upon to respond out loud, to pose the question, to give time for all to think about it (no hands up) and then to ask a specific student to share their thoughts. It also helps to praise the effort made, to valorise trying even if it involved failure, and not to praise a student for ‘being correct’ or innately ‘clever’.

Concluding remarks

I’m not claiming here to offer anything radically new in terms of pedagogy. The examples of practice that I mentioned above seem to be the sort of thing that experienced teachers typically do to get students to see that they are capable of making progress, if only they’ll allow themselves – and the fact that they align well with the mindset theoretical framework just gives a pleasing coherence. The experience of students in the past, or in other schools currently, may have been different if teachers did, in fact, tell students that they were “no good” at this subject (or even worse “no good… just like your brother/sister/mother/father was no good at it”), or if the education system itself assumes that students have a fixed mindset and treats them accordingly by severely restricting their possibilities from very early on in their school careers.

I’m also wary of slipping into the mistake of telling children that they can “be anything they want to be, as long as they want it enough”, as that fails to address conditions adequately by absolutising responsibility. I’m told that a lot of children think that they are going to be ‘rich and famous’ because they really, really want to be rich and famous – it is easy to believe this when you see examples of celebrity culture. Maybe that attitude is not so common where I teach, but we can’t ignore the fact that some children will assume that they are ‘no good’ at certain subjects, or even the whole business of learning, because their parents before them were ‘no good’ – and it may be that there is a job waiting for them (in the family business, etc.) which doesn’t require them to have a school-level of understanding in physics! There are many other contributing factors other than the fact that a student ‘really wants’ to succeed, contrary to the popular perception, such as happening to be in the right place at the right time!


Further reading
Picture credits
  • Mindset graphic by Nigel Holmes, professional graphic designer.
  • Satirical Einstein quote, own work.
  • Photograph of me with magnets at a school open evening by Stephen Hill.

Meditation 17: Establishing a meditation practice

Meditation is simple, but not easy. As proponents of the Middle Way we recognise that meditation is a valuable practice: it helps us to avoid delusion by making us almost instantly aware of our own relative lack of integration, and it can help us to make incremental progress with the process of integrating conflicting desires. So, we have a simple, valuable practice which we believe will be of benefit but one that is also not at all easy to do, and one that is not at all easy for many meditators to establish.

Setting the scene
This whole article is based on the assumption that it is better to meditate, than not. And if one meditates, I assume that a frequent, regular practice is better than irregular. The only justification I’m going to give has already occurred in the paragraph above! I’m also going to assume that the reader aspires to establish a regular meditation practice, but has not quite got there yet. This is a fairly common situation, as I understand it, and this is no surprise when you consider that meditation is usually a process of continually failing. We’re not well conditioned to being confronted with this!

There are plenty of articles out there on the internet that provide instructions on (for example) ‘How to establish effective habits’ and I don’t intend to replicate them here. Instead I’m going to work with an analogy from my own personal experience and explore the connections between establishing an exercise regime and establishing a meditation practice.

Runner runningIt was only a few years ago that I established a regular, daily meditation practice, and I’ve maintained it ever since with only the occasional day off. I know I’ve got the determination and self-discipline to do something like that if I think it is worth pursuing, and I still think it is worth pursuing now – that’s why I’m keeping it up. However, trying to give helpful advice in this context is a bit like the adults who, in my church-going youth, told us teenagers to refrain from sex until we were married: easy for them to say, they were invariably already married! So, I’m going to use the example of something that I’m still working to establish, and that’s a regular running regime.

A running commentary
Over the years I’ve obviously run – there were the enforced running activities in PE and games lessons at school. Later on, when the running was not mandatory, it did not happen particularly often. I used to cycle to get from A to B, and that seemed like sufficient exercise – I’m talking about the kind of exercise that gets your heart rate up, that strengthens your cardiovascular system. After gaining some weight during my undergraduate years at university, the influence of my more active postgraduate peers led to me exercising regularly at the university gym – and although I concentrated on lifting weights, I also felt obliged to mix that with some running, mainly using treadmills. It was not rewarding, although I did get fitter (and thinner) – but as soon as I started full-time teaching that also stopped. There were other demands on my time and I didn’t prioritise running (or any other kind of cardiovascular exercise) as it was inconvenient and painful.

In my early 30s, when my wife was pregnant with our son, I was rather stressed and had borderline high blood pressure – exercise was recommended by the medical professionals. I tried a few things, none of them stuck. In time my blood pressure went down and the pressure I felt to exercise also declined. Which brings me to the end of my 30s, roughly this time last year, when I had arrived at a point where I’d realised that there are all sorts of things one can do (or stop doing) to improve one’s well-being, and regular physical exercise was probably the final one that I was dodging.

bruno-nascimento-149663I settled on running for its simplicity. It can be done anywhere, at any time, alone or with company, and requires minimal specialist equipment – and I already had suitable footwear. The financial implications were practically zero, which helped. The technique, too, is simple: left, right, left, right, etc. I’m sure you know: it’s a bit like walking, but faster. My body was already reasonably well-prepared for it: I’ve never been slimmer, my knees were still in good working order and I was otherwise in good health. Just not at all fit.

Now, just over a year later, I run regularly but not frequently – at least once a week. I am able to run at least 10 km without stopping, in less than an hour. I have no idea if that’s “good”, but it’s where I’m currently at. I haven’t injured myself, and I’ve kept it up through all the (admittedly mild) seasons, and I want to continue. I don’t do it for company, as I run alone, and I don’t do it to win, as I’ve never entered any kind of race. So how over the past year have I gone from basically no fitness to this, and what has it got to do with meditation? Read on through the following six points…

1. Just do it, and really do it
kristian-olsen-114779I did a lot of thinking about running. Not much talking, but a fair bit of listening. I pondered the best time, place, clothing, technique and so on. But you’re not actually running unless you’re actually putting one leg in front of the other, and probably working up a sweat at the same time. In the analogy that I’m making, meditation is much the same.

There is a lot of advice out there, probably too much. As many different opinions and options as there are people offering those opinions and options. But at some point you’re going to have to sit down (or lie down, or stand, or walk) and meditate. So do it, pick something simple and go with it, and don’t dress it up with a lot of unnecessary accessories.

2. Be conscious of self-consciousness
Maybe this is something that is more of an issue for me than it is for others, but at first I felt very self-conscious about being seen to go running. I didn’t see myself as ‘a runner’, and I had pretty much no experience of running. What if I was doing it wrong? I found a way around this – simply by going running at 6am on Sundays, when I was pretty much the only person out on the streets. It also helped that it was dark in the autumn and winter when I was getting established.

You may find the same thing with meditation – I certainly did. It helped me when I was starting to meditate to do it at a time when I knew that I wouldn’t be interrupted – so first thing in the morning, before my son had woken up. It also helped to have a friendly guide who you won’t feel ‘judged’ by – for me it was impersonal guided meditations via my phone, but for you it might be a meditation teacher in person. In time the feeling that I had to look and act like ‘a meditator’ has faded away.

3. Establish a regular time
I’ve already mentioned that I found a time that worked for me, both for running and for meditating. And for both it was first thing in the morning. Of course, this may be different for you, but don’t fool yourself with ideas like ‘But I’m not a morning person’. You might surprise yourself. There was a time that I thought I would simply die if I did not immediately eat breakfast when I woke up. Turns out that’s not true, but I only found out by actually doing it! The main thing is that you have a time when, in the usual routine, it is time to meditate: it is much easier to make it a (virtuous) habit then.

In terms of duration, I’ve always used a timer. When I started running I’d take a timepiece with me, as I’d have alternate between running and walking and without a timer I’d end up walking for a long time and running for only  a short time. Now that I can run without stopping I leave the smartphone at home, but afterwards I record in my diary how far I ran and how long it took me (roughly). It appeals to the part of me that likes data, and provides a more objective way of tracking what I’ve done. As for how long, I’d just run until I felt that I really couldn’t run any further.

File_000 (11)With the meditation practice, as I said I started with guided meditations so they were of a fixed duration. I don’t often use guided meditations now, but I do use a timer. Mainly because sometimes there are time constraints (for example, I’ve got to get to work on time). If there aren’t any constraints, then I meditate until I feel like I can’t meditate any more. I still have a timer running when I meditate, in fact I use the ‘Insight timer’ app on my phone. I don’t meditate for points (or to ‘win’ at meditating) but there is something satisfying about having it tell me that I’ve meditated for 222 consecutive days (or whatever).

4. Establish a regular place
The analogy here is a bit weaker, but it still broadly works. There are various constraints on the routes that I run – they usually need to start and end at my house, they need to be suitably challenging (right amount of uphill and downhill), the fewer roads I have to cross the better, sometimes there needs to be the option to quit part way through. The main thing is that I have favoured routes which I tend to stick to, but I don’t always run the exact same route in the exact same direction. Variety, here, being the spice not the main ingredient.

In my analogy, the running route becomes the meditation location. It has to be convenient and conducive to the meditation you’re doing; you don’t want to be easily interrupted, but you’ve got to accept that there will be times when you can’t meditate in your preferred spot. My preferred location varies to fit the circumstances, but it helps to have a place that is ‘where I meditate’. In the winter I usually roll out of bed (in the dark) and sit next to my bed. In the spring and autumn, when it is lighter and warmer, I get up and go downstairs and sit by the patio doors. If it is summer I sit just outside on the decking. But there are times when I mix it up: for example, I might put on gloves and a hat and sit outside in the garden in the winter.

Runner with hands on head5. When things don’t go to plan…
When establishing the running I had a regular time, regular routes, etc. but of course things don’t always go to plan. There were times when, for example, I’d be ill on a Sunday morning and not capable of getting out of bed, let alone running 5 km. Or maybe I’d be OK, but my son was ill and needed more attention than normal. Or I’d run a few miles then feel the need to urgently visit the toilet when the only real option was to run back home again. These are the occasions to be open to the idea of being flexible, of not being too rigid. A few weeks ago I had a huge headache on Sunday morning, but it had gone by the evening and so I ran instead in the evening. This might sound obvious, but it needs saying: it is so easy to say ‘Well, my habit is to run on Sunday morning and if I can’t run on Sunday morning then I won’t run at all’.

Astute readers will have noticed that there will be a clash in my schedule on Sunday mornings, as my habitual meditation time coincides with my habitual running time. Do I, perhaps, see the running as a meditation, to put one foot in front of the other and to really feel myself placing and lifting my feet, to follow the deep inhalations and exhalations from my diaphragm? Or do I just meditate first and then go out and run. Or maybe I run for a while, sit down to meditate on a park bench, then run back home again. I’ll leave that as something for you to ponder.

6. You’re not alone
My running is a solitary activity. I have always done it alone. But have I really? I sometimes talk to friends who also run about their running: why they do it, how they do it and so on. When I’m out running, even when it’s before 7am on a Sunday, I pass other runners: some wave, some give a dignified nod, with some it is just a knowing look. But there’s a kind of community in that – especially when you start to recognise them week after week.

ian-keefe-245920You will probably get stuck with your meditation. At the point where I got stuck I was pretty much going it alone. However, through some connections that I’d made with more experienced meditators (via the internet) I was able to get un-stuck. They didn’t remove the blockage for me, but by discussing their own experiences and how they found a way through I was able to do the same thing myself, in time. I’ve also been able to return since to the things that were causing me to get stuck, and they now look very different to me. What was a source of frustration in my meditation has become something more helpful.

This probably depends a great deal on your personal preferences, but it may be that you’ll find it easier to meditate regularly if you are involved with other meditators. It might be someone more experienced who can offer guidance, or it might be someone similarly inexperienced who is willing to muddle through with you, and to share encouragement. My wife has been meditating for significantly longer than I have. We often sit together in the evenings. It really is quite a different experience to sitting in meditation on my own, and it means that sometimes when I don’t feel like meditating there is encouragement from her to take a break from whatever else I’m doing and join in.

curtis-macnewton-12711In terms of being part of a larger group – I’ve never done that with running, but I have friends who keep up a regular running practice mainly because they ‘have to’ as part of a group they’ve joined. Similarly, I wasn’t part of a meditation group when I was establishing a regular practice, but for others I know that is their way of reminding themselves of their intention to regularly meditate. I’ve already mentioned the Insight timer app – this also has a social side, in that it can show you other people using the app, all over the world, connecting you to a rather loose community of meditators. My feelings about this vary, but generally I see it as being akin to my very low-key interactions with the other runners that I meet when I’m running alone.

In conclusion
The point in all this is that establishing a regular practice of anything is going to take some effort, and there are things you can do to try and make the establishment more successful. I can offer various points from my own personal perspective, which might be broadly helpful but they probably aren’t going to be a perfect fit to your own personal situation. So what I’m recommending is to draw on your own experience. The things I’d encountered whilst establishing a regular meditation practice, in particular the things I’d learned about my own inclinations and preferences, could be applied to new virtuous habits that I’m trying to establish, hopefully making the process much easier.

igor-ovsyannykov-219668If you’re trying to establish a regular meditation practice then I won’t wish you good luck – I don’t even know what that really means, other than wishing you well in your venture. Instead I will conclude by giving you this encouragement in the style of one of history’s most famous meditators (The Buddha):

Such is a regular meditation practice. It can be established. It has been established.


Follow this link to read my previous meditation blog post: Meditation 16: Conscious listening.

Index of previous meditation blogs

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Policing by consent?

It took me completely by surprise to see two men armed with semi-automatic weapons heading straight towards me.

Of course that opening sentence – although true – is a deliberate attempt to grab your attention. I hope I don’t lose you by revealing further details: the two men were Authorised Firearms Officers of the Hampshire Constabulary on patrol in Winchester city centre. It was just by chance that I happened to be walking towards them with my family on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.

Photograph of armed police officersSo it would seem that there ends the story, except… as our paths crossed I took a closer look at the gun of the nearest officer. The weapon’s magazine was made of a translucent material, and I could see the individual rounds within. And it struck me that it was possible that one or more of those bullets could be shot into me or my wife or my son, probably causing fatal damage. In the short time it took before my slow-thinking processes dismissed the idea as totally far-fetched, I felt my blood run cold.

Anyway, this short experience at the weekend led to certain lines of thinking: How flimsy is the barrier that separates the living me from the horror of a sudden, violent, mechanised death? How it has come to pass that some people can walk down Winchester high street on a Sunday afternoon carrying semi-automatic rifles, and others can’t? And, of course, what has all this got to do with the Middle Way?

I can supply a little more background information here, especially for any readers from outside the UK. In Great Britain police officers are not routinely armed and the public are, with a few exceptions, not permitted to carry firearms. I have seen British police officers armed with similar weapons before, but this was in high security locations such as Whitehall in London, or at Heathrow Airport. In contrast, the city of Winchester, where I crossed paths with these armed officers, was last year proclaimed ‘the best place to live in the UK’ due to its high employment, good wages, low crime and above average health and life expectancy. I assume they were patrolling as a kind of reassurance to locals and tourists that any acts of terrorism would not go unchecked, in the wake of recent atrocities in Manchester and London.

This paragraph from Chapter 6 of Robert M. Ellis’s book “Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire” helps set the tone for any discussion of policing in terms of the Middle Way:

The state’s responsibility, then, is to support the integration of desires by preventing the grossest expressions of conflict – those which would create an environment in which further integration is impossible. [… O]ur environment needs to strike a balance between security and challenge in order to prevent the arising of unintegrated desires, but that means that a basic level of security needs to be created by government. In order to do this it is obliged to use force to suppress those who would perpetrate conflict by violence or other coercion.

18815853363_c91b9befb4_oSo these armed police officers were one of the means by which the government ensures a basic level of security, so that I can, for example, feel free to walk up Winchester high street (pictured on the right) on a Sunday afternoon without needing to carry arms myself. If there were any people in the city centre who intended to perpetrate conflict by violence, or the threat of violence, then I would reasonably assume that these armed officers would use (possibly lethal) force in order to suppress them. In this way I am able to continue my business of becoming a more integrated human being.

I have little appetite for physical violence. I actively avoid it, and I certainly don’t have the physique or the weaponry to excel at it. I’m sufficiently appalled by the violence inherent in the food industry that I choose to eat a strict vegetarian diet. But if I tried to make the principle of non-harm an absolute – thou shalt not kill, ever (even if you’re a police officer) – then it isn’t workable, it doesn’t address conditions in which there are people who are willing to perpetrate conflict by use of lethal force.

A very similar sentiment was expressed (perhaps more bluntly) by Brad Warner in a blog post in March this year. He put it like this:

Human beings are fair and inclusive, when we have the resources to be. This ability to be fair and inclusive has a high price. A society that values fairness and inclusivity also has to be able to defend fairness and inclusivity. It has to be able to kick the shit out of those who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it is a fact. I hope this is not always the case. I believe that someday, in the distant future, when neither I nor anyone else alive here in the year 2017 is around any longer, it is possible that this will not be the case.

But we will never get to that point unless we understand the real situation right now. Which is that if we want a fair and inclusive society (and I do), we need to employ people whose job it is to kill — or at least have the capacity and willingness to kill — other human beings who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

In short, monks need soldiers.“

So who are these people who have the capacity and willingness to kill on my behalf? I don’t mean this personally, I’m not questioning the virtue of individual officers – in fact two of my good friends from teenage years are now police officers, one of them a firearms officer, and I’m satisfied that both are competent and ethical individuals. I ask what is their status, and what do we have in common and what separates us?

The idea (in the UK, and many other nations) is that these people are citizens in uniform, rather than soldiers: their primary principle is to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. The soldiers mentioned above by Brad Warner are probably more relevant to conflicts between nation states. Note that the capacity and willingness to kill is part of a preventative process, which, if it is effective, is far preferable to resorting to repression by military force. The ideal is that in the act of prevention all citizens (uniformed and un-uniformed) are better able to maintain their integrity than would be the case during any after-the-fact violence.

439px-Robert_Peel_PortraitWhen I say that this is their primary principle, I’m referring to the so-called Peelian Principles which were set out in the ‘General Instructions’ that were issued to every new police officer from 1829. [N.B. The Peelian Principles were named after Sir Robert Peel (illustrated on the right) but apparently there is no evidence of any link to Robert Peel and the principles were likely devised by the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne]. This kind of policing is known as ‘policing by consent’ because the power of the police is supposed to come from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. However there is the important corollary that no individual can chose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

If you’ve not come across them before, I recommend that you make the effort to find out more about them. I hadn’t heard of them until earlier this year, but when I started looking into them they made a lot of sense and helped to make more concrete the vague ideas I’d developed about the principles of policing in the UK.  It has also changed they way in which I relate to police officers – which has been increasingly helpful as I’ve continued to get older and the police officers get ever younger.

The issue of public consent is elaborated further in principles 2, 3 and 4. Specifically, the fourth stated principle is

To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.“

So in my Sunday afternoon example, if I (a member of the public) see police officers carrying lethal weaponry, but refraining from using it because the situation does not call for it, then I am more likely to approve of their presence. It is not just for safety’s sake that they carry their weapons with the muzzle pointing towards the ground. The authority of the armed officers is not supposed to stem from the fact that they are armed, but because the public approves of the way that they conduct themselves whilst armed in the broader context of preventing crime and maintaining order.

There’s another issue involved in police officers being armed so that the rest of us don’t have to be: armed officers put themselves at greater risk of being harmed in the course of their duty of protecting other citizens from harm. This ‘ready offering of individual sacrifice’ is also mentioned in the fifth Peelian principle.

The sixth principle involves addressing conditions in an incremental way:

To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Again, the idea being that public consent will be maintained if police officers do their duty in an even-handed and proportionate fashion – and their duty does not extend to avenging individuals or the State, nor does it include judging guilt and issuing punishments (as it says in the eighth principle). The sixth principle urges the use of physical force only to the extent that it is necessary to address the specific conditions of a situation.

In conclusion, then, I’m reasonably satisfied that the Peelian Principles of ‘policing by consent’ are compatible with the Middle Way, and that only political extremists are likely to reject them as being a sound ethical foundation on which to organise the maintenance of civil society. The big issue, as ever, is to what extent the Peelian Principles are actually realised in the way that policing is carried out in practice. In my privileged (and compliant) position in society I’m pretty unlikely to find myself on the wrong end of an armed officer’s gun, so perhaps my role is more as a protector of the standing of the Peelian Principles. As I see the Principles as a valuable working system then I should speak out if I see them being flouted by corrupt individuals or being undermined or perverted or otherwise absolutised by political figures. What do you think?


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Further fodder for consideration