The MWS Podcast: Episode 10, Emilie Åberg

In this member profile Emilie Åberg gives us a bit of background about her life, why she’s studying psychology and her plan to be a horticultural therapist, her views on agnosticism, the Middle Way, integration, the Quakers and dogmatism. She also talks about awe and why she feels the cultivation of this emotion is an important factor in her life.

MWS Podcast 10: Emilie Åberg as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_10_Emilie_Åberg

Previous podcasts:

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.
Episode 1 : Robert M. Ellis on the skill of critical thinking.

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.

13 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 10, Emilie Åberg

  1. What a great interview! It’s such a pleasure to listen to someone with as strong, articulate, and individual a grasp of the Middle Way as Emilie!

    The talk about the environment earlier on also reminded me that we need to put some resources on this site about the Middle Way as an approach to the environment – particularly to help avoid the kind of pessimism Emilie talked about. The environmental crisis is so often seen as a huge and impossible challenge, because of the tradition of thinking of ethics in idealised terms remote from our experience. Yet if we can only find a balance between moral challenge and psychological realism, we might be able to actually start doing what we are capable of doing to address it.

  2. Lots of interesting stuff here – especially the insights into Emilie’s experiences with the Quakers, who I know very little about but will now endeavour to discover more. Lots of this is relevant to me: Social Anxiety, Atheism and having lots of songs (12,347) on my iPod, which seems to take away some of the awe that the music can inspire.

    The previous discussion that we had regarding agnosticism and atheism highlighted, to me, the idea that any label can cause trouble. As an atheist people might assume that I am dogmatically anti-religion; if I said I was agnostic people might think that I am sitting on the fence, or that I don’t find the question of Gods existence important and if I said that I was a Quaker then many people might assume that I believe in God (as I would have done before today).

    I recently decided to stop downloading music and opt for buying real CD’s, which are often cheaper! Receiving a CD (or vinyl), with the artwork and sleeve-notes seems to be part of the listening experience – even though I don’t listen to the CD itself, it goes straight onto the ipod. The other thing that my friend and I have recently started to do is make less playlists and reduce the use of the shuffle function. Instead we now listen to whole albums, this has greatly improved my experience, and much of the awe has returned.

    As I was listening a couple of things occurred to me that I would like to put to Robert.

    RE: this definition;

    ‘Hard agnosticism is the recognition that we can never achieve certainty in our knowledge because of our finite and embodied nature.’

    Isn’t this, itself, an absolute claim? To recognise that we can never achieve certainty, is to achieve certainty. Is this a paradox?

    The other query involves the avoidance of metaphysics and ties into what Emilie was saying about fairy tails. While metaphysics might be best avoided in fields like science, philosophy and politics, does it have a place – in that it is worth imagining – in the arts (which in turn may affect science, philosophy and politics)?


    1. Hi Rich
      If someone were to ask me what I get out of the MWS, and I were to reply that for example people come up with suggestions like “keep your hands off your shuffle button” they might think it to be a rather obscure bit of advice. However, it really makes sense to me and I tried it out tonight to good effect, a few years ago I bought the Jeff Buckley album “Grace”, basically because it contained his famous cover of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”. At the time I probably only half-heartedly listened to one or two other songs, didn’t really pay attention and never played it again. I revisited it this evening though, listened properly and had a treat! So thanks to both you and Emilie for that

      I also found your, Emilie’s and Robert’s comments on ‘certainty’ helpful. As Emilie pointed out in the podcast, the MWS is by no means immune to dogma and for me it is good to be mindful not to be dogmatic about being non-dogmatic.

      Finally, like you, I also found Emilie’s comments about the Quaker’s interesting. They have a friend’s house near where I live. I’m tempted to pop in and see what they get up to.

  3. Hi Richard,
    I used the word ‘recognition’ in my attempt to define hard agnosticism, in order to suggest a fuller embodied process of cognitive and emotional adjustment to our finite and embodied nature. On making such an adjustment one ceases to expect certainty. It’s only if you interpret hard agnosticism in solely cognitive (and hence metaphysical) terms that you run into the so called ‘paradox of scepticism’ that you raise – that is, the idea that sceptics are certain about uncertainty. I don’t think there is such a paradox for balanced, Pyrrhonian, sceptics – only for negative denial sceptics.

    One can understand scepticism and hard agnosticism as bodily states in which an initial commitment to integration undermines dogmatic oppositions and allows that integration to start happening. Certainty is a narrow cognitive state in which the bodily aspect of experience is ignored. If you become certain of uncertainty in an equally narrow way, you just get negative metaphysics. However, if you experience uncertainty in a balanced way, you just increasingly experience uncertainty as a condition rather than asserting it dogmatically despite experience.

    I think the need to avoid metaphysics in the arts is no different from any other area of experience. Metaphysics can manifest itself in the arts as an attachment to a particular artistic doctrine or set of rules, from icon painting to postmodernism. Sometimes the metaphysics is negative and means abandoning even provisional and helpful rules. Fairy tales do not involve metaphysics – indeed that is the whole point; they are highly meaningful without us having to ‘believe’ in them. I think Einstein advised telling children fairy tales because it helps to add to their stock of meaningful symbols through which to articulate experience, and just provides a much wider set of resources to draw on when creatively responding to experience by developing new beliefs.

    1. I thought Emilie’s account of herself was quite delightful, and there was an airiness and spaciousness to her discourse. I was also struck by what she said about awe, or wonder. I have encountered awe and wonder rather infrequently, but know its taste. It can’t be easily described.

      Two incidents come to mind. I was parent governor at a junior school and on a visit to the school with the head teacher we came across a small child, maybe he/she was about five years of age. She/he looked at me, and asked me a question. I can’t recall the question. But I was seized by a feeling of transcendent beauty, and awe as I met her/his gaze. I later described the experience as as like “being brushed by a comet’s tail”.

      In another incident I was facilitating a group session and I had invited members to form pairs and discuss or share something or other, I can’t recall what. I sat out of the way and watched. I saw two women sitting on the floor, in quiet conversation with each other, relaxed and seemingly at ease.

      I was again overcome by the transcendent beauty of the two in relationship, the awesomeness of the suchness or isness of relationship, of embodied mutuality and reciprocity, of ‘something holy made flesh’. These words can’t communicate the experience. But I have a distant recollection of it, and know (with Sri Nisaragadatta Maharaj) “I AM THAT”.

      I’m not moved to try to recapture the experience. But I understand Emilie’s reverence for it.

      1. Peter, your words are inspiring. Particularly this stood out for me:

        “being brushed by a comet’s tail”. What a wondrous description. It communicates something about something that can’t really be communicated.

        As E.M. Forster wrote; one cannot fully capture the “imponderable bloom”.

  4. Hi, I enjoyed very much listening to what Emilie had to say, it struck me how a small something, – the contents of a book, an enthusiastic teacher or someone with a passion for a subject, – can form a memory which later is remembered and acted upon. The Secret Garden I liked because loving care was shown to have a beneficial effect on the garden as well as the boy, although at the time I read it I wouldn’t have put it in those words, I was left with a feel good emotion. When I hear that head teachers in infant and junior schools give time in the curriculum to show children how to tend a garden or look after small animals I feel hopeful that it will inspire them.
    The subject of the enviroment, if raised on the Middle Way site, would add a further dimension to our interests, we are bombarded with information in the media, often it is difficult to know what is or who has the better solution to all the problems, global warming being one, from my perspective I think it is largely man- made, but there is another strong lobby who have come up with a different conclusion.

    1. I agree that the subject of the environment would be very fruitful ground for the Middle Way Society, not least because there is often very clear dogma on each side, although – like Norma – I think that the balance of dogma is (much) heavier on the ‘climate change’ deniers side.

      Would the exploration of social issues also be a possibility? I was very interested in Roberts blog regarding food wastage in the UK and would like to see how the Middle Way might approach other matters, as well as exploring food consumption further.


  5. Thanks for that. So, the trick here is to not be ‘certain’ about ‘uncertainty’, which would be dogmatic, metaphysical and paradoxical – but to not expect certainty, and to question it (in an integrated manner) where it is presented?

    So, it is O.K. to consider and utilize metaphysical subjects for artistic purposes as long as this is done without dogmatic belief (positive or negative). I could consider the existence of fairies as inspiration for poetry, but not base this inspiration on a metaphysical belief that fairies (certainly) exist, or (certainly) don’t. I think what I am trying to say is that the avoidance is of belief of rather than exploration of metaphysical subjects per se.


    1. Hi Rich,
      I agree with your summary, except that I’d like to clarify where you talk about ‘metaphysical subjects’. I’m not sure that a whole subject can be metaphysical – even the subject of metaphysics, perhaps! Metaphysics consists in propositions that make claims beyond experience, so ideas that may sometimes be associated with such propositions – like the ideas of God, fairies etc – are not themselves metaphysical. One can even have propositions about God or fairies that are not intended to be metaphysical because of their context – as is the case in stories. When I read in Peter Pan “Every time someone says they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies”, I don’t interpret this as a metaphysical claim!

      Relating this to the issue of agnosticism, scientific naturalists/atheists often argue that it would be absurd to be agnostic about the tooth fairy, or about a teapot orbiting the earth (Bertrand Russell’s example – search ‘Russell’s teapot’ on Wikipedia). But for me the whole point of such ideas as the tooth fairy is that they ‘exist’ in a realm of meaning and archetype in which suspension of belief or disbelief is basic. The teapot, which started off as a thought experiment, has also gained a similar meaning. It’s also correct that I ‘don’t believe’ in these things, but not in the sense that I deny their existence, rather that a lack of information better justifies a suspension of belief than denial. Where we’re talking about things that are meant to be possible in a more literal way, like the teapot, we can also acknowledge that the probabilities of there being an orbiting teapot, as far as we can judge them, are vanishingly small. But the recognition of a very small probability is importantly different from a definite denial.

  6. The idea of a Middle Way approach to the current environmental issues is a great one! Like you say, there is so much fear and hopelessness in the media and public psyche, and I feel there is much potential benefit in an incremental, non-dogmatic view.

    Richard, your comment about listening to whole albums is precisely what I was trying to get at – I feel there is a case to be made for taking a little bit more time with each “thing”, and to perhaps be more choosy and restrict oneself a little.

    I honestly feel that people are, on average, less able to focus than before. I am, at least. Anyway, I am happy to hear that you have reclaimed some capacity for awe! I think I have some ways to go myself, as I can easily squander an afternoon watching or reading mildly interesting or amusing snippets.

    Norma, I too love reading of school pets and plantings. There are almost countless benefits to getting kids to garden, not least that it is fun!

    1. I do intend to put something about the environment and the Middle Way on this website soon. However, I have written about it in ‘A New Buddhist Ethics’ – and there is an online version of the relevant chapter at . Unfortunately there are problems with the formatting of this website (my first one!) on some browsers, and you may find the marginal box jumping into the middle of the page and obscuring some of the text. I’ve tried to fix this problem without success. I can send you a copy of any text that’s obscured because of this – or you can buy the book, of course!

      1. Robert, thank you, I will have a look at that website! Also looking forward to something relating directly to Migglism.

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