[This issue, we sit down with author and philosopher, Brendan Myers. Here, he discusses his personal practices; his latest book, The Circle of Life Is Broken; and his upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Brendan Myers: When I was a grad student, some of my friends asked me if I was an Aristotelian, or a Platonist, or a Nietzschean, or something else. I told them I’m a “Brendanist”. It got a good laugh.
I’m a philosopher. That might seem bombastic: aren’t philosophers elitist intellectual snobs? Or, it might seem uninformative: isn’t everyone a philosopher? So, allow me to explain.
I’m a philosopher in the sense that logic, mathematics, science, intellectual curiosity, healthy skepticism, and reason, are my main partners in the search for the highest and deepest things in life. From my earliest years, even before I discovered the pagan community, I was uncomfortable and unsatisfied with the pat answers to the big questions provided to me by school and family. I was sure there was more to say about them, and I wanted to find out for myself. Is there an ultimate reality? What is human nature? What is right, good, and just? What is love? Do the gods exist? Where do I belong? I followed an Irish Druid path for many years, as I’m the son of an Irish immigrant to Canada, and to some degree I still follow that path. The ancient druids were, among other things, the philosophers of their time; perhaps philosophers are the druids of ours. But I want no myths, metaphors, and symbols standing between me and the immensities. I want to face them, know them, and address myself to them, directly. Philosophy provides a powerful way to do that: it is a two-thousand six-hundred year old multicultural tradition of reasoning, exploring, doubting, experimenting, and discovering. And it already belongs to everyone.
In my view, nothing in the world is intrinsically mysterious, nothing is beyond humanity’s ability to discover and understand, and there are no initiatory secrets. Everything is revealed to those who are intellectually curious, courageous, careful, patient, imaginative, observant, cooperative with other seekers, and open-minded. Reason and rationality is a spiritual superpower.
To some this may imply a kind of Nietzschean warmonger who charges into the field of life, tearing things up, destroying obstacles in the path, and pounding his chest with bravado. I have in mind something like a rabbit, who has big eyes for seeing, and big ears for listening. A small yet strong fellow who digs down into the places under the surfaces of things, where the Nietzschean lion is too big and clumsy to go. A fighter when necessary, but more often a caregiver and a friend to other rabbits. I know that they’re prey animals and they live in fear of everything much of the time, so perhaps this metaphor has its limitations. But rabbit mothers will pull out their own hair to make a nest for their children; and rabbit adults will go almost anywhere, despite their fear, to find food and shelter. This is a good model for a spiritual path.
The practical result of all this, is that I’m like the Professor Snape of the pagan world. I’m the guy who bursts into the workshop-spot at the festival saying “There will be no silly wand-waving or chanting in this circle! Here we will learn to think!”
ev0ke: You recently released The Circle of Life Is Broken as part of Moon Books’ Earth Spirit series. First, congratulations! Second, how did this book come about? Why a book on philosophy and the climate crisis?
BM: Thank you!
There has always been a forest in my life. As a child I had the conservation park on the edge of my hometown, and my grandparent’s sugar-maple bush. Today I have the Gatineau Hills park: my house sits across the road from its edge, and close to a trail head. Going into a forest nearly always makes me feel strong, healthy, and free. But I am now old enough to have seen for myself how forests change over time. The signs of climate change have caused me no small degree of melancholia; yet they have also spurred curiosity. Why are my forests changing? Why is the world changing? Why, apparently, for the worse? And what, if anything, must be done about it?
There’s a branch of philosophy called environmental ethics, which addresses questions such as those. One of its answers, speaking very broadly and perhaps imprecisely here, goes like this: “We are all connected to each other and to the Earth through the great big Circle of Life. If we came to understand that fact better, perhaps we would also understand that pollution and environmental destruction is contrary to our self-interest. When we harm the Earth, we also harm ourselves.”
The idea came to be called the Green Self. It got popular in the late 1960s and remained a prominent part of the field for more than half a century. But a few years ago, when I was on holiday in rural Bohemia, Czech Republic, I was reading some reports on the drought the area was experiencing at the time, and state of global warming in the world in general. An uncomfortable realization struck me: The Greening of the Self did not happen. Despite more than half a century of campaigning for environmental protection, supported by this beautiful idea called the Green Self, the climate crisis only carried on.
That statement became one of the chapter-headings in “The Circle Of Life Is Broken”. I decided that I had to find a better idea, something that could replace the Green Self. Something with as much potential for artistic and spiritual inspiration, as well as practical applicability and ethical authority. My new book presents the result of that search. And to give you a hint: it has to do with complex systems, emergent properties, the primacy of symbiosis, and magic as a function of meaning.
ev0ke: What sort of research went into The Circle of Life Is Broken? Long walks outside? Consultations with other philosophers and climate scientists? Huge stacks of books?
BM: All three of those things. Five years ago I had only a few undergrad textbooks in environmental thought on my shelves, most of them dating back to the 90s. Today I have nearly a hundred primary sources. I also corresponded with experts in several fields around the world: an advantage that comes with being a college prof is that it’s easy to do that, and most of my correspondents took my project seriously. I’m also blessed with friends who are top-flight academics themselves: one of my closer friends is both an anthropologist and a hedge-witch, and she provided the best and toughest feedback on an early draft. I would be a lesser philosopher without her.
But the long walks in the forest were perhaps the most important of my “research resources.” I go into the woods for days at a time, often leaving my phone behind, in order to think and feel and contemplate things without distraction. The forest helps me to recognize and let go of old assumptions and bad thinking habits, and so to see the world for what it is, and to feel my relationship to it for what it is. There’s a small lake in the forest, that takes me just over an hour to reach on foot, which I credit in the book’s acknowledgements. Many of the book’s most important ideas came to me while sitting on its shore.
ev0ke: The Circle of Life Is Broken is divided into five sections: Kenosis, three Root Questions, and Plerosis. How did you develop these three root questions? Did they evolve as you developed the manuscript?
BM: The section on Kenosis (this means ‘emptying out’, or ‘purging’, by the way) came to me first, and most easily. It’s the part where I go into why the Greening of the Self didn’t happen.
The three Root Questions came next. They were, it seemed to me, the questions necessitated by the failure of the Green Self and the quest for its successor. They were the most difficult parts of the book to write. For they required me to face both the anger and the despair that rose up in me when I contemplated the scope of the climate crisis and the failure of the world’s corporate and political leaders to prevent it while it was still easy to prevent. If I am a spiritual participant in the global circle of life, as many pagans believe, and yet the circle of life is broken, what does that mean for me as a spiritual being? Am I, for no fault of my own, also broken? For the record, I do not believe in Original Sin, nor any of its secular variants; it is a false doctrine. But under the shadow of the climate crisis, something in humanity’s individual and collective relationship with our beloved world had gone wrong, nonetheless. I regarded it as my responsibility, as a philosopher and as a human being, to find out what that was, and to find a way to heal it.
The third section, Plerosis (‘filling up’, ‘replenishing’) came en-passant, as I realised that all the forest-walking I had been doing while writing the book might also be good for the readers to do as well. You’ll find two activities there: the Green Pilgrimage and the Green Sabbatical, which I hope readers will find useful and inspirational.
ev0ke: At one point you ask “What becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as an ultimate reality?” First of all, why the qualifying “an” in front of ultimate reality?
BM: Because there could be more than one ultimate reality. That’s the beating heart of polytheism. Where there’s more than one god, there’s more than one way of being in the world, and more than one kind of relationship you can explore with life and reality.
ev0ke: Second, what do you see as some of the consequences — positive, negative, neutral — of humans becoming more “being-ecological”?
BM: To paraphrase James Lovelock, one of the originators of the Gaia Hypothesis: “There is no prescription for being-ecological; there are only consequences.” Seeing as the global biosphere is a complex system (as opposed to a merely complicated one), we can not predict all the consequences that may follow if humanity moved to prioritise our being-ecological.
But we can make a few broad aspirations. We might have more ecological education in schools. We might re-tool the economy for wind, solar, and tidal power, and the current generation of nuclear power. We might zone off large areas of the Earth, perhaps one-quarter of its land territory and one-third of its ocean, as a kind of Global Ecological Commons, to help stabilize climate, preserve biodiversity, preserve air and water recycling, and so on. Perhaps in such zones only low-impact farming or forestry or eco-tourism may happen, perhaps guided by local Indigenous land protectors.
Politicians and industrialists have so far tried to assure us that humanity can ‘go green’ with relatively little disruption to the lifestyles of the suburban conservative middle-class. If I’m right about what has to be done to save the Earth and save humanity with it, no one will be able to make that assurance anymore. Many people might resent that.
In place of that impossible assurance, our response to the climate crisis must be, in some measure, a work of unfettered imagination, in which we treat nothing in politics and economics as inevitable, for better or worse, and try to imagine how things could be better, and then work to make them so.
We could imagine banning the sale of petrol-powered cars, or banning all future urban expansion, as examples. That might make suburbs more dense, contract the construction industry, and worsen the housing crisis. A lot of people would feel that pain.
But we could also imagine electric charging stations everywhere, better public transit, and more car-sharing cooperatives. Imagine parking lots with solar panels providing shade to the cars on hot summer days, and electric power to recharge them. Imagine re-zoning the suburbs to allow for more mixed uses, so that fewer people would have to walk or bus many kilometers to get to work and back. Imagine what a suburb would look like if most houses turned their garages and ground floors into workshops, daycares, specialized markets, or libraries, leaving the second and third floors as residences. Imagine if the asphalt on every second or third suburban street was torn up and turned into gardens, arboretums, sports fields, or swimming ponds.
Our motto must be the same as the Parisian students if ‘68: “L’imagination au pouvoir” – all power to the imagination!
My biggest hope, though it is perhaps a longshot, is that as we advance in our being-ecological, we shall also advance in social justice and community well-being. Ecology is the science of relationships, of giving-and-taking, of complex systems, and community togetherness: in that sense ecology is the moral antithesis of sexism, racism, patriarchy, and fascism. With our being-ecological prioritized, will still be individuals, of course; and I will probably remain an introverted loner. But it is my hope that the more we prioritize being-ecological, the more we shall see how our lives are embedded in each other’s, and the more we shall be moved to care for each other and for the world.
ev0ke: You also recommend that people undertake Green Sabbaticals and Ecological Pilgrimages. Would you be willing to share any of your experiences from a Sabbatical or Pilgrimage? If so, did you find them difficult, painful, awe-inspiring?
BM: Well, some of those experiences are already described in the book, and in my 2017 book on pagan social-political thought, “Reclaiming Civilization”. But here, I can add that there was one experience I found surprisingly uncomfortable about the Green Sabbatical. It was abstaining from television, video games, and social media, for 24 hours, once a week. I’m solidly a member of “Gen X”; I got my first email address in 1992, and I had a Coleco game console in the 80s. So some of my habits around electronics are now decades old. But after practicing the Sabbatical for a few months starting this past summer, it became easier to let those habits go. I made plans in advance for what I would do during the Sabbatical. I read more novels. I also got more exercise, made more home-cooked meals, and slept better. One result was that I became more alert to the signals of discomfort, illness, and injury, in my body. I took better care of myself. And on other days of the week, I reached out to friends and family more often. It took around four months to get there. But I think it has indeed improved my quality of life.
ev0ke: In addition to your own work, which other resources on eco-philosophy would you recommend?
BM: While researching The Circle Of Life Is Broken, I enjoyed books by Michael Mann, Gus DiZerega, Timothy Morton, Emma Restall Orr, David Abram, Robert Bringhurst, David Suzuki, George Monbiot, and L.M. Browning. My partner at the time was a rabbi in the tradition of Jewish Renewal, and through her I found inspiration in several Jewish environmentalists and Kohenet priestesses. I’m not Jewish myself but I appreciate good ideas when I encounter them, as I hope you do too.
Also, while writing the book, the science of mycorrhizal networks in forest soils came to the public’s attention: so I strongly recommend the works of Suzanne Simard, the Canadian ecologist who discovered them. I think she is the Rachel Carson of our time.
ev0ke: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you hope to attend in the foreseeable future?
BM: In the past I’ve attended events in every province in Canada, one each in the American states of Pennsylvania and Louisiana, several in Germany, and one in Italy. I hope to visit them all again very soon.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
BM: I recently finished (to fifth draft) a science fiction novel about consciousness and identity. It’s in the hands of my editor right now, and I plan to pitch it to publishers before the end of 2022. It is my second SF novel after Flight Of The Siren, which was published during the pandemic, and which a reviewer in Amazing Stories called “a masterpiece”. I’m also outlining a third SF novel: this one will be about ecological breakdown and the quest for immortality.
In non-fiction, I’m collecting notes and thoughts for a work on time, cosmology, and the quest for the meaning of life. So, clearly a drug-store paperback you can read on the beach.
And finally, just for fun, I have two tabletop RPGs coming out soon. One of them is based on my Fellwater: The Hidden Houses urban fantasy novels. The other is a swashbuckler in the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels, Baron Munchausen, and The Three Musketeers.
The Brendan-verse is always growing, and everybody’s welcome to come and play in it.