On the need to take even strokes—How Henry Bugbee’s naturalistic philosophy and some mindful meditation might help us get through the pandemic

You can listen to a recorded version of this piece via my podcast site found at this link

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and deepens I am more and more finding myself talking on the phone or Zoom with someone who has found themselves in a very low and despairing state.

The question for me, quite naturally, is what, with a clean heart and full belief, can I talk with them about which might, perhaps, genuinely prove to be of some help?

As many of you know, for me, there is no recourse to the kind of theistic responses available to some of my more orthodox religious colleagues but, fortunately, thanks to the twentieth-century philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), there is something that I am able conversationally to offer up to a struggling person without being in anyway dishonest. 

In his extraordinary and unique book called “The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form”, published in 1958, Bugbee suggests that the non-theistic, naturalistic help available to us is something akin to “the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations” (The Inward Morning, University of Georgia Press, 1999. All quotes in this piece are taken from pp. 121-123). 

So what does Bugbee mean by this? Well, let me unfold for you something of his train of thought.

Bugbee feels that we humans are great insisters; we are creatures who feel that in order properly to be getting on we must always be insisting we “see to it!” Obviously, there are many things we must genuinely be “seeing to” in our daily lives but our background, go-getting individualistic, neoliberal, consumer culture quickly helps translate our “seeing to” this or that “into anxiety and effort, trying to take charge.” 

As Bugbee says, this anxious and exhausting way of “seeing to it” — of creating the feeling that we are assuredly in charge — although it is sometimes “learned” and even “profitable” it is not graceful, and it is precisely this gracelessness way of proceeding which serves to hide something very important from our view. 

The image Bugbee chooses to explore this state of affairs is a swimmer who is “flailing the water to keep from going down.” As he notes, the flailing swimmer in their desperate attempts not to “go down like lead” either gracelessly and frantically tries to swim in a relaxed manner or simply mistakes relaxation for inaction. In both cases the frantic swimmer, desperate to see to this or see to that, cannot see that the best general way to go on well is to relax in an appropriate fashion.

However, sometimes, whilst we are flailing away, we all experience “times when waves overtake us from behind, lifting us up and along” and from these, Bugbee points out “we may take courage and be thankful.”

But our new found courage and thankfulness can all too easily and quickly morph into the delusional thought that, somehow, “in the exhilaration of swift swimming” we can now “claim as our own the power of the wave.” But for Bugbee “this is demonic swimming”, a state in which we suffer the illusion that we have “not fallen into flailing” but have, instead, “become the masters of our element.” 

Now I’m not, myself, a great swimmer but I remember experiencing just this phenomenon as a teenager on my first truly long-distance cycle-ride. I set off in the morning at a furious pace to travel as far as I could before, at mid-day, turning round to return home. At first I fairly flew along and was amazed and proud of my supreme fitness and the high speed. Many miles were covered and lunch was duly had in some pleasant, sheltered spot deep in the Essex countryside miles from home. It was only upon remounting my bicycle to return that I suddenly became fully aware of the strength of the wind into which I was now cycling and which previously had been at my back. Many hours later I staggered into the house utterly exhausted but now significantly wiser. Although I didn’t then have the words to name it this way I had, of course, just engaged in what Bugbee could easily have called “demonic cycling.”

To return to the analogy of swimming, it is only when a person has learnt to recognise “demonic swimming” that there can emerge for them the possibility of taking “the even stroke informed by the sea that carries us all alike; a sea of which trough or crest are but undulations. Now and then we swim a few even strokes and know where we are.”

Bugbee continues:

“Steadiness and steadfastness are alive to the constancy of our being sustained. They guard against the illusions of elation and depression; such are the undulations of our sea while we ignore our being sustained.”

For the experienced, non-demonic swimmer the steadiness and steadfastness that is expressed in their conscious employment of the relaxed and even stroke helps them attune themselves to something that they did not create themselves, namely, this idea: ‘the constancy of our being sustained’. The steady, relaxed stroke is a practice that helps this constant, sustaining background to show up to us and which, in turn, can help us reevaluate our basic way of being in the world and help guard against the illusions experienced in both elation, at the crest of the wave, and depression, in the trough of the wave.

Bugbee gives an example of what this reevaluation looks like by referring to our, alas, still current ‘philosophy of value, and of evaluative criticism’ — i.e. the ways we more often than not talk about what we feel is good and bad, up and down and so on in our lives.

My experience in talking to most people who seek me out strongly suggests that Bugbee is right in saying that, for the most part, we are all too often tempted to take “the undulations” in our lives — i.e. the good and bad, the up and down — “at face value” and that this reveals a certain faithlessness with respect to reality.  

Another way of saying this is to note that we have become thoroughly persuaded by our culture to think “that when we are up our position is good, and when we are down, our position is bad.” Bugbee encourages us to resist this thought and wants us to be clear “that our position is not necessarily good when we are up and not necessarily bad when we are down.”

What Bugbee is looking for here is something that can help us more properly (more realistically) evaluate our life beyond the measures provided by any “face value” understandings of the passing undulations, those things we call good or bad, up or down, etc.. 

He finds this more appropriate evaluation present in something spoken about by the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328). Bugbee notes that Eckhart “is guarded about our moments of joy, suggesting quite clearly at times the profound illusion we may suffer in elation.”

Now what does this mean? Well, let’s return again to the demonic swimmer. There they are, being carried forward by the wave. On its crest they can see great vistas about them and they simultaneously experience the visceral joy of being carried swiftly forward. However, according to Eckhart and Bugbee, this elationary experience, when taken at face value, simply serves to create a profound illusion, namely, the feeling that the power of the wave is somehow the swimmer’s own and that they have themselves — through their own insistence and power — somehow been able “to see to it” (whatever it is)  and arrive at this magnificent moment of peak experience, one that truly tells them about how things truly are — all good, and all high and lifted up.

But, as should be clear from what has so far been said, this is, in fact, to be faithless with respect to reality in that it has wholly lost sight of and forgotten this peak experience is only possible because of the sustaining sea.

Bugbee feels that Eckhart was fully conscious of this danger and that he wanted to say to us, as people have said in all religious traditions, “that we learn to give ourselves up to the sea, and come finally to trust in it, only in the abyss of the deepest troughs.”

Again what does this mean? Well, let’s return to the demonic swimmer. It is often only at the bottom of the wave’s trough that the demonic swimmer is finally forced to become acutely aware of their foundational conditions as a creature immersed in a sustaining sea of being together with all other things. In the darkness of the trough of the wave the demonic swimmer no longer has great vistas to distract them and they become aware instead of the limitations of existence, of being unable to see any distance or knowing which way is forward or back and they start to fear that, indeed, they may ‘go down like lead.’

Some people in this situation decide they are going to “see to it” by continuing to flail demonically, believing that only their own power is going to get them out of this trough and back onto the crest. Some, alas, do decide to give up and go down like lead. 

But others relax and begin to take a few even strokes and, in that simple, modest human action, they open up the possibility of gaining a grounded, if always dynamic and moving, sense of knowing their “true position.” But, you may ask, what is that true position? Well, in a moment I’ll leave you with Bugbee’s powerful and richly allusive, answer. 

However before doing this I want to say that, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated political and economic crises, we find ourselves in the midst of some seriously frightening rough seas in which we are experiencing mostly troughs and only a few crests, such as those associated with our distant glimpses of effective vaccines. In this situation we all, quite naturally, want to be “seeing to it”, getting things obviously done, to be in charge of our destiny and so, to keep from going down like lead we are all tempted to flail and succumb to demonic swimming. But, as I hope Bugbee’s train of thought reveals, demonic swimming will not save us and the demonic swimmer’s face value reading of our situation, in which they think that when they are up their position is good, and when they are down, their position is bad, is not going to get things done properly, it will not help us see to it properly. In short, if we carry on in this fashion, we will exhaust ourselves and assuredly go down like lead. 

Bugbee reveals that the best way to get things done, especially in this moment, is to relax and begin to take even strokes. Indeed, this is why during the pandemic the only religious service I have been offering the Unitarian community in Cambridge UK where I am the minister is one which centres on a long period of mindful meditation; a service which, until lockdown, was our Sunday evening service. Naturally, I cordially invite all who listen to this podcast, to join us. Just be in touch via the contact form on the church website. Also, here’s a link to a pdf of the service itself.

I offer this service week by week because it’s as plain as a pikestaff to me that we all need to find a way to see that the extreme troughs and crests we are currently experiencing are genuinely and simply undulations of a sustaining sea and that, therefore, our position is not necessarily good when we are up and not necessarily bad when we are down, or indeed vice versa. Only once we have learned to take even, relaxed strokes through these undulations can we hope properly to gauge our true position and identify the few basic things that really count in this life, which make it both worthwhile carrying on AND possible to carry on.

So, to conclude, what does Bugbee — and, indeed, what do I — think is our true position? This is what Bugbee allusively says:

“The sense of the sustaining sea is bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be. The joys and the sorrows deserving our affirmation are those in which we affirm our togetherness with fellow-creatures. These are true joys and sorrows, and as men [and women] have ever borne witness, they are true in their concrete understanding of reality and of our togetherness in reality.”