The MWS Podcast: Episode 17, Rich Flanagan

In this latest member profile, Rich Flanagan talks to us about why he joined the society, what the Middle Way means to him and to what extent he applies it in his job as an operating department practitioner in the NHS and as a dad. We’ll discuss the importance for him of meditation, his interest in science. He’ll also talk about why he sees that for him there is no conflict in being an atheist and a practitioner of the Middle Way. We touch on religious ethics, navel gazing and one particular reservation he has about the society.

MWS Podcast 17: Rich Flanagan as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_17_Rich_Flanagan

Previous podcasts:

Episode 16: The broadcaster and writer Vishvapani on mindfulness and the Middle Way
Episode 15: Lesley Jeffries and Jim O’Driscoll, the founders of Language in Conflict
Episode 14: The writer and journalist Mark Vernon on agnosticism.
Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Earlier podcasts

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

7 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 17, Rich Flanagan

  1. Good stuff, Rich. The whiff of controversy in Barry’s summary turns out to be a bit of a false lead, though – I was almost disappointed! 🙂 “There being no conflict in being an atheist and a practitioner of the Middle Way” turns out to just be the absence of a sense of a God-shaped hole in Rich’s life, rather than an assertion that the Middle Way implies the denial of God’s existence. And “the one particular reservation he has about the society” turns out to be a cautiously expressed danger of new-ageiness. I don’t really think this is an immediate danger, just because as yet there are no members of the society that I’ve got to know whom I would describe as new agey. For my part, it’s true that I have a beard and sometimes even wear sandals, and I do really admire the open-mindedness and relaxedness of new-agey people, but I suspect I lack the major negative characteristic of new ageiness, which is naïve credulity!

    One other point: in the discussion of Katie’s ‘antitheist’ position I thought that two rather different things were conflated: antitheism and antireligiosity. One could be antitheist because one associates God with religion and disapproves of religion, but religion does not necessarily involve God at all, and belief in God does not necessarily involve religion at all. Some people believe in God, but reject all religion as a betrayal of the God they think they believe in, whilst the religious followers of a number of world religions – not just Buddhism but also Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto and some schools of Hinduism, do not involve belief in God.

    Religion as an experiential engagement with archetypes, and thus a dimension of all human life, seemed rather missing from this discussion – and I do think this is important. The approach to religion found in Dawkins, as well as the US Secular Buddhist movement, often strikes me as impoverished precisely because they don’t seem to have understood what a Jungian perspective can offer, and the worlds of myth and art are sidelined by representationalist talk about the supposedly ‘hard facts’ of the case. I wonder if this is mainly about the type of education one has received, and the tendency for over-specialisation to turn us into “arts types” and “science types” who don’t understand each other.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I am sorry that my interview was not controversial enough :), but if I was at least partially articulate and legible then I consider it a raging success.

      I think that Barry’s introduction is fair though. My strong suspicion is that many people (Dawkins included, as Barry pointed out) who class themselves as atheist are so in the way that I describe myself, meaning that there is no conflict in being an atheist (in the most common, if not most accurate sense of the word) and being a Middle Way practitioner – no absolute claims are being made. I am only making a statement that I live without faith in a deity and in some parts of the world this is an important and brave statement to make.

      I do not think that the New Age problem is wholly immediate, but I might not be the best person to judge. By meditating, playing the digeridoo and going on silent retreats, some might say that I am already quite New Age! My experience with many of the New Age people that I have spent time with is that they are no more open minded that anybody else, they just have different dogmas – which are firmly believed; western medicine is bad but herbal remedies are good, genetically modified food is bad but organic is good, nuclear power is bad but wind power is good and on it goes. Because they often dress differently and subscribe to the healing power of crystals does not make them open minded. They don’t dress differently when they are all together anyway, a bit like Punks (that’s why I stopped dressing like one at the end of my teenage life).

      I do admire attempts at breaking the conventions of society, which they often do. My real fear though, is that if one breaks away too hard from convention, and becomes opposed, then we can miss out on those conventions that are positive – this does not seem to be a Middle Way. I have stereotyped the New Age (which is a cartoon image anyway), not every New Age person is dogmatic or wildly opposed to ‘western’ medicine, and there is much that I like about the culture – there is some genuine creativity and important ideas to be found.

      We have had a similar discussion about religion before and my view is that to be classed as a religion there has to be some kind of metaphysical faith. Once there is no metaphysical faith then it ceases to be a religion in anything other than metaphor. So Buddhism is a religion, philosophy and way of life but once a faith in the effects of Karma and reincarnation have been removed it is just a philosophy and way of life.

      I do, in general, disapprove of faith in metaphysical teachings and therefore disapprove in religion as a way of explaining the world – although I like many other aspects of religion (those which, by my intentionally narrow definition are not religious).

      Conversely, I do not, in principle disapprove in the idea of a God – that is to say if one does in fact exist then I do not, automatically, disapprove. I would however, disapprove if that God turned out to be the God of Abraham, because I disapprove of his teachings and conduct, although if he did exist I would much too fearful to express my concerns.


      1. Hi Rich,
        My worry about using ‘atheism’ to mean the mere absence of a belief in God is just a practical one. If we’re to be able to articulate a Middle Way in any particular respects, we also need labels for the extremes that we’re avoiding. If you allow ‘atheism’ to mean a position that is actually agnostic, what are you going to call a position that involves denial of God’s existence?

        People can also easily be confused by labels, and readily assume that positions that have the same label are the same position. If you allow the distinction between atheism and agnosticism to become blurred, people (especially those coming from a theistic background) are likely to assume that the Middle Way is just another sort of atheism.

        I try to be quite rigorous in my even-handedness, and I think being rigorously even-handed is an important part of the spirit of the Middle Way. A theist could just as well come along and argue cogently that theism is really agnostic (indeed, Mark Vernon seems close to that position), and then we would end up with similar problems with lacking a clear term for a metaphysical affirmation of God’s existence. I suggest strongly that we should not modify our vocabulary either one way or the other, to suit people of one background or the other. Otherwise we may rapidly find ourselves losing the Middle Way and being seen (particularly by people on ‘the other side’) as a mere front for metaphysical positions of the kind they reject.

        I’m aware of how tough this is, but I think it’s especially important at this early stage in our evolution. It would be very easy to become dominated by a clique who interpret the Middle Way as really atheist, or really determinist, or really theistic, or really Socialist (Tony Blair’s Third Way), or really Buddhist, and at that point we really lose our raison d’etre. The Middle Way is none of these things: it is a subtle, shifting, critical balancing point between them. I think we have to be really careful with our language in order to make sure we maintain our commitment to that balancing point, even if (of course) we don’t always actually hit it.

  2. Hi Rich,
    I agree, it was an excellent podcast, enhanced for me by the fact that I agree in general with what you had to say! I hope many will listen to your discussion with Barry and find echoes in their own views, it might encourage them to make further inquiries into The Middle Way site .
    Have you found new age theories explored on Twitter controversial? I don’t tweet so have not come across them, I’m sure some would make me wary of their soundness.

    1. Hi Norma,

      Thank you for your kind words. My hope too, is that other people who say that they are atheist might also become involved in the Middle Way. On appearances it can appear a little anti-atheist, when in fact it is only such for a rarely realized absolutist view. I think that Roberts definition of atheism is narrow, in the way that my definition of religion is!

      As I have said above, there is much to like in the New Age world and many interesting people but one also comes across frequent dogma, patronization and condescension – which I dislike. I have not come across too much negative Newagedness on twitter, but we are followed by (and follow back) quite a few New Age type individuals and groups – which is fine. It might be interesting to find some examples of dogma within this world view and give them the Middle Way treatment though.


  3. Hi Rich,
    I’m pleased to hear from you. You may have heard my podcast when I said I no longer call myself an atheist (I did in the past), I don’t believe in a God except as an archetypal figure. I wonder, was a god an evolutonary neccessity that helped to make sense of the world, the floods, earthquakes, life and death? Perhaps such a belief had once been hard – wired into the way our ancestors thought when they were hunter/ gatherers, but what do I know! Of course millions of people still hold that belief. We still have a felt sense of awe I think, we experience wonder. I came round to the view that Robert’s description of ‘hard agnostic’ was a better definition. For me, Middle Way thinking involves a steep learning curve, at times I find it hard to understand what Robert has to say, I am optimisitc that I will learn more. As for atheist/hard agnostic, it is a fine line but negotiable?
    There is a great deal to think about, I’m taking my time to slowly absorb what I read on the site. I think you agree that Robert’s intention to avoid extremes is the way to go, walking the middle way path seems to me to be the best direction? As Robert says it is provisional but it works for now.

  4. Hi Rich, if you’re still following this… I appreciate its been over 2 years since the last comment, but I’ve only today listened to this podcast. Mainly I found it reassuring… your intro to how you arrived at the Middle Way Society was very similar to my own journey. If you want to compare notes on what’s happened in the time since this podcast was recorded, send me an email. (If it’s not possible via this comment, ask Barry or Robert, they both have my address). Jim

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