Welcome to the Wholly Orders FAQ Page
Here you may find some answers to your questions about Wholly Orders. When it comes to the more profound issues, the kind not listed in any FAQ, stay tuned to the podcast, and we will explore them together.
Some (but not all) of the following material overlaps with material covered in the introductory episode of the podcast.
Who are you? What is your name?
James M. Landes
Where are you from?
Kansas. I’ve lived all over, but Kansas is the place where I grew up, and to which I always return. I live outside of Kansas City.
What does the view of the Western tradition look like from suburban Kansas City?
I often wondered if there was anything left for us in Western thinking and philosophy. Like many other spiritually-minded people in my generation, I sought refuge in the Eastern traditions. I got into Zen and eventually moved to Japan. Yet my practice went from diligent but to disillusioned. I learned from experience the truth of the adage: wherever you go, there you are. The spiritual quest there felt like a failure back then. Maybe that’s just because I still wasn’t quite ready to accept what I had gained from it.
In Europe, I visited plenty of museums and cathedrals. They were great, of course, but the feeling of distance remained. My most profound states of reflection came in dialogue with friends on evenings on the Rhine, or walking around Florence. Western tradition lives in us, not in monuments or artifacts.
If one needs external ornamentation in order to feel a connection to a tradition, one is looking at tradition as a dead and static thing.
The perennial wisdom of the West is alive and well in those who engage it, wherever they are. We do this through contemplative thinking and dialogue.
Are you some type of authority on nondual thinking or mindfulness in the Western tradition?
I bristle at the notion of being called or thought of as an authority. Even the language of social media bothers me. Yes, by all means, “follow” me on Twitter, but please, do not follow me.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx’s famous line, I refuse to join any group that would have me as a leader.
Of course, I understand why people might want to know something about me, some credential(s). I have no problem answering those questions. Yet at the same time, when it comes to the search for wisdom, the emphasis should be on the search.
Krishnamurti’s comment to the effect that “The speaker is not important,” is something that I would echo.
I am using the rich history of Western tradition much more in order to ask questions than to provide answers. Yes, I do see the irony in using an FAQ to make that point.
What I have done is to spend a lot of time on these topics, and from a number of angles. I think that Western approaches to mindfulness are more or less hidden in comparison to the Eastern approaches. Looking into them could serve us well in this time, when there are so many problems in the Western world. It’s not out of a sense of authority that I am stepping forward. Rather, it comes from a feeling that it’s time for me to do my part.
To the extent that it may matter to some, I do have academic credentials as well. I have studied the Western tradition in some depth.
What are your academic credentials?
I have a Ph.D. in German literature. My dissertation was on Goethe’s Urfaust fragment. I also have two M.A. degrees. One is in philosophy, with an emphasis on phenomenology and existentialism. The other is in German literature, with a specialization in the late eighteenth century. I wrote a Master’s thesis on Herder. I also spent a one year each abroad at two different German universities during (post-)graduate study.
Anyone interested in more detail, including links to some of my academic work, should check my profile on academia.edu.
What is your background in philosophy, nondual thinking, etc?
After that, I pursued my first M.A. at another Jesuit university, also in philosophy. The program covered the history of philosophy extremely well. My main focus was Heidegger. Still, I wrote more about Aristotle and Aquinas on my exams than anyone else. My M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in German literature were outside of the Jesuit framework. In both cases, I was fortunate enough to work with directors who were supportive of me pursuing my philosophical interests.
As far as nondual thinking and mysticism goes, my interest started in my late teen years, when I read Alan Watts’ classic, The Way of Zen. Later I grew interested in Heidegger’s subtle engagement with Zen. This prompted me to move even more in that direction.
Eventually, I moved back to the Western contemplative tradition. In studying the towering intellectual figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germany, there are a lot of esoteric and mystical elements that enter the picture. These writings were very much a part of the discussion for many of them, even if only privately and in literary parlors. But it really helps to know this material if one is to begin to understand the background of some other famous literary works.
What led you to create a podcast?
A lot of Gen Xers like myself grew up with a romantic notion of the university being a place, if not the primary place, where people are free to explore ideas. Saying something like that now is to date yourself instantly.
For me, ultimately, this decision was not about quitting my path, but about being able to continue it, unencumbered. I started looking for creative ways to express not just what I have learned, but also to maintain the exploration.
When talking with a very dear friend, I suddenly found myself blurting out the idea of doing a podcast. His reaction was one of encouragement. The idea quickly built enough inertia that I realized that I would later have regrets if I didn’t try it.
But why podcasts, specifically?
I’ve had a love of radio since I was a boy. By extension, I’ve been a big fan of podcasts since the inception of the medium. There’s something about this medium that is very special and different from other media. I think that it is the one-to-one contact between speaker and listener. If done right, it feels like a dialogue is taking place, and invites the listener to respond. There is a directness and frankness in podcasting that seems nearly impossible to experience in other media.
Who is your ideal audience?
Those who fit the old expression of having an open mind, but not so open that their brains are falling out.
Those who can encounter different viewpoints and ideas without becoming angry or offended. Ideologues are probably a bad fit.
Those who sense that something is wrong with the way in which the world is represented to us, or maybe better said, the way that we have learned to represent it to ourselves.
Those who find the presumption of continual progress vaguely Orwellian.
Those who can discuss spirit and science without feeling conflicted.
What is the goal of the podcast?
To this I bring academic rigor, while getting rid of the ideological content and consensus bias that one often finds in academic life. I try to discuss things in clear language to the extent possible.
Clarity is also important for another reason. I am discussing nondual thinking, mysticism, etc., These topics often get woolly or saccharine treatment in non-academic forums. In the latter case I am speaking especially of the fuzzy language in the New Age.
I hesitate to even use some terms lest I be misunderstood, because of the popular connotations. If you are looking for pop philosophy, gurus or secret teachings, you won’t find anything like that here.
Ultimately, I’m exploring a way of thinking that approaches Buddhist mindfulness but comes from Western sources. There’s a line from T.S. Eliot that I like as an unofficial syllabus for the show. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
What will this project look like three years from now?
I’m keeping my hopes and plans open-ended for now. There’s no doubt that I would like to write and explore other forms of media. This forum is really a gathering place for others interested in similar ideas.
Are you an armchair philosopher, or have you actually experienced other cultures and explored philosophical ideas outside of the Western world? Examples?
Aside from my time in the ivory tower, I have been a bit of a wanderer, although a purposeful one. I’m the type of person who would rather visit another country for a year than to take a whirlwind tour of seven countries in two or three weeks, because I like to immerse myself in that culture and get to know it. I took some years off between the two M.A. degrees, in order to do just that sort of thing.
I lived in Japan for over three years. For many years before and after that I maintained at least a casual interest in Zen, with some serious za-zen practice from time to time. Dōgen’s writings have long been of interest to me, and from the contemporary period, I find Shunryū Suzuki’s work Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to be quite profound, and vastly underappreciated in its elegantly simple presentation of the mystical path.
I’ve also traveled to South Korea several times, and was introduced to some of the Korean Zen tradition through my Korean friends. Seungsahn’s work, for instance.
Which philosophers/thinkers/poets have most influenced you?
Heidegger was the largest single influence on my thought in my twenties. His vision of the Western philosophical tradition and of technology were and are of great importance to me. In large part my turn to poetry came from my reading of Heidegger.
Meister Eckhart himself is an important influence as well. I’ve turned back to him numerous times over the past 20-25 years. Especially during what I can best describe as a metanoia experience some years ago. For me there is no holistic thinking without a sacred dimension.
Goethe is a great influence. His yoking together of poetry, philosophy, and science is something that I greatly admire. This importance and relevance of Goethe to my approach cannot be overstated.
More recently I’m also becoming more interested in the work of scientists like David Bohm and Henri Bortoft. Their work in bringing forth a scientific vision more consonant with participatory vision and phenomenology deserves more attention.
Finally, I have a strong interest in poetry and poetics. Herder’s poetics remain a strong interest. I am also particularly interested in the poetic response to mechanistic science and the technological.
There are too many poets to list here, but I will mention a few. Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Novalis, Rilke from the German tradition. Blake, of course, and really all the English Romantics. Pablo Neruda. Kathleen Raine. I could go on.
Do you frequently reference specific philosophers/thinkers/poets in your podcast? Are you basing your podcast on specific works?
I would and will reference any of the above-mentioned, and many more. [See answer to previous question regarding influences.] My podcast is not based on specific works, necessarily. Still, I tend to come back to Goethe and Heidegger often.
That notwithstanding, this is not a Goethean or Heideggerian podcast per se. Nor is it meant to be an exposition of either of their collective bodies of work. It is a creative endeavor on my part, resulting from a variety of influences with my personal experience.
What kind of a podcast is this?
One thing that I would like to stress is that this podcast is a journey and not an end. It is definitely not meant as a series of lectures.
Also, given the broad use of the term ‘philosophy’ on the internet these days, I should also like to make something clear. I’m not interested at all in telling anyone else what they should think or how they should live.
I mean philosophy in the classical sense — the love of wisdom. Not in the sense of anyone’s personal or life philosophy.
Where does the name “Wholly Orders” come from?
Of course, part of it is a play on the words ‘holy orders’ with an allusion to the type of holistic perspective that I am describing in this project. However, it’s also a nod toward David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
I’ve noticed that you place emphasis on the words “Western” and “Tradition.” Is this site about politics?
That might be hard for some people to swallow. These days almost anything that anyone says or does these days is judged politically. It’s appalling, really, and not a sign of a healthy society. There are people out there using terms like Western and Tradition in a very political manner. If you react to terms like Western or Tradition either in abject horror or chauvinistic pride, you’ve probably let some ideology get the better of you.
I share the view expressed by Terence McKenna, that ideology is an adolescent way of relating to Being.
A holistic point of view must get beyond the limitations of ideology. Ideologies rely on gross reductionism and abstraction, forcing all experience and phenomena into pre-determined categories.
Ideologies tend to get more radical, sweeping and reductive as they try to iron out the wrinkles that they cannot explain. Narrowing one’s perspective might bring some comfort, but, I would suggest, causes more problems than it solves.
As difficult as it may seem in our politics-saturated society, I want to get away from all of that.
Why is creativity important, and how does it find expression in your life?
Creativity, and by extension, the imagination, is, for me, the highest faculty of the human being.
There is no reason that we should surrender this birthright, but we are pressured to do so in many ways. We are taught to see things in a certain way, and the imagination then recedes into the background. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” says Wordsworth. And then, two lines later, “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
The best argument for creativity is not really an argument. It is simply taking up the act of creating, and letting others see the fruit of that work.
At the moment I have to say that this project is my chief creative outlet. Building this platform, hoping to reach others interested in similar ideas, speaks to my soul. It’s a sort of my high-tech version of ‘message-in-a-bottle.’
Are you an artist or an observer only?
I would say both. There is an element of observation and commentary in what I am doing. Yet there’s also an attempt to step in during this chaotic time with something creative, constructive and centering.
You might say that this project marks my transition from being an academic observer toward becoming a public artist.
What do you mean when you say 'mindfulness'?
Contemplative thought in the sense of being attentive to your own attention.
It’s really about learning to observe, to the extent possible, without defaulting to the collective representations and understanding. Letting beings be, as opposed to making them correspond to ideas.
Also, I know that this term is also a buzzword for the New Age. I don’t mean that sort of navel-gazing line of ‘self-improvement.’ I mean the type of attentiveness and observation that one finds in poets like Goethe, philosophers like Heidegger, mystics like Meister Eckart, and scientists like Henri Bortoft and David Bohm.
What do you mean when you say 'holistic'?
Appreciating the big picture, in the sense of not mistaking the parts for the whole, not even the sum of the parts as the whole. Also, not understanding the whole as fundamentally separate from the parts, either, but as an implicit order within them.
I certainly don’t mean the sort of New Age catchall use of the term. “I’m one with everything” blah blah blah.
Think phenomenology and hermeneutics, not the ‘self-help’ or ‘personal growth’ nonsense out there.
What do you mean when you say 'mechanistic'?
The idea of nature as a machine construct, functioning like clockwork.
What (type of) traditions are you promoting?
That’s an excellent question.
My formal studies have either been in the Jesuit tradition of presenting philosophy in the context of intellectual history, or in the true tradition of Germanistik as it has classically been taught in Germany, in which one studies the history of the language and literature from its inception to the present.
We cannot put ourselves in the position of those in the past, but we gain wisdom from listening to their voices. There is no profit in condemning them and writing them off as irrelevant.
The past is prologue and helps us to understand our current perspective. The ideological extremists in our midst, who want to erase all tradition, are themselves part of a tradition. One with a poor track record. The same goes for some of the would-be “defenders” of tradition.
Ideologies, identity politics, etc., do not interest me. When it comes to these things, the Western spiritual tradition calls for being in the world, but not of it.
I am promoting the Western contemplative tradition.
In this respect, I am also not at all prepared to cede words like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘holistic’ to the New Age gurus. They reflect essential aspects of the contemplative
As ridiculous and unlikely as it may seem, I’m going to paraphrase Bono here. In Rattle and Hum, he introduced ‘Helter Skelter’ as the song that a certain depraved individual “stole from the Beatles.” Then he said, “We’re stealing it back.” Well, that’s how I feel about terms like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘holistic.’ These are the terms that the pseudo-philosophers stole from the contemplative tradition, and we’re stealing them back.
What do you do when you're not reading and writing?
I enjoy cooking, playing with my dog, meditation and listening to obscure podcasts or old radio programs. I’m also an ardent Linux user and supporter of open source development.
My sense of humor runs slightly dark and very, very dry. So I’ve been told.