PLACELESS drifting, colonization and reconciliation as interior journey (an interview with Tim Lilburn)

placeless, our identity is never fully developed and our anger, thus unnamed, is rampant, diffused. Without a relationship to land and the respect and ethical regard that come from relationship, we are dangerous and savage to land, as well as bereft within, nameless, unhoused.
— Tim Lilburn, "The Larger Conversation"

Tim Lilburn is a Canadian poet, philosopher, and essayist — from Saskatchewan, and a longtime West Coast resident (Victoria). He is the author of several critically-acclaimed collections of poetry, including Kill-Site, To the River, Moosewood Sandhills, and Orphic Politics. The dialogue that follows expands upon themes and ideas presented in his 2017 book of essays, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, which details the interior and contemplative aspects of de-colonization and ecological philosophy-as-practice. I first reviewed the book for subTerrain magazine and afterwards struck up an extended conversation with Lilburn, some of which you will find below. The review is included at the end of that text.

Tim Lilburn, courtesy of  Penny’s Poetry  Pages

Tim Lilburn, courtesy of Penny’s Poetry Pages


Campbell: In “Contemplation and Place”, you speak at length about how the proposed reconciliatory conversation between settlers and indigenous peoples in Canada can have no hope of occurring without a recognition of the deep spiritual and intellectual poverty that afflicts North American settler culture. At a basic level, I think this has always been upsetting to me, born and raised on the West Coast — how we are often completely dim to the land we inhabit; living next to mountains, rivers, and places, with their names and stories removed, unaware of their broader spiritual, ecological and historical significance.  You say, contrary to top-down mandates such as the Truth and Reconciliation commission, that we are, as of yet, still in a stage of “pre-conversation” — unable to even dialogue with this land and the people who have taken care of it for millennia, until we reach deep into our own interiority as well as our own spiritual and contemplative traditions. 

As an educator, I’m interested in how we can practice a ‘pedagogy of hope’ within global structures that often seem (and are) repressive, reductive, impersonal, and instrumentalized. These days, I often see my own students and friends flirting with cynicism, anxiety, and despair, and I realize this may be, as you say, an important first step (i.e. chapter two in your book entitled “The Start of Real Thinking”), but it can also be paralyzing and self-defeating. As Western Canada is still very much defined by many through the extraction of resources and wealth, and not our commitments to contemplation and place, how do you sustain hope (or, rather what keeps you from despair) that this conversation is even possible? 

Anxiety, fret, drifting are to be expected under these conditions. 

Lilburn: Colonialism has many causes – greed, racism, a rampant will to power. I would add to this list certain epistemological allegiances and the deficits in one’s being-in-the-world they foster. European culture’s post-Cartesian proclivity for a certain form of knowing, a certain form of what many take to be cognitive rigour, has caused the closing down of the contemplative tradition in European thought. This has meant, because of the pedagogical attachments that mark this seemingly lost tradition, that conversation, attention, interior transformation have undergone a complete loss of philosophical significance. It is not surprising that settler culture does not comprehend where and what home is, since it does not know how to see, to take in, individualities and their relationships. So, yes, people like me are in a state of “pre-conversation” in the matter of reconciliation, hoping to learn, if one is lucky, intellectual humility—Keats’ negative capability—so that a space may grow in the self where the actual world might appear.  

Another aspect of the pan-cultural injury, or poverty, in which folks like me live is that, not truly taking in where I am, I cannot be bound to that place, making autochthonicity difficult, if not impossible, for me. Placeless even when at home, I cannot occupy the larger self, which is the atomic self leagued to, elongated by, the joy and sufficiency of one’s place. I float over a land I do not know, in an intellectual tradition offering no sapiential rooting. Anxiety, fret, drifting are to be expected under these conditions. 

I wonder if there can be some joining of traditional contemplative practices and teaching at the post-secondary level. I’m mulling over this possibility these days in an essay I am working on called “Contemplative Practices, Contemplative Pedagogies.” For me, because of my background and reading, most of these practices come from the Platonic tradition in its Christian, Islamic, Judaic and Neoplatonist forms, but other sources of interior shaping are also possible. The conversation I yearn for is a long-shot, but hunger tells me there might be a way.

Campbell: You also speak about the need for a pedagogy of attention, a deep sensorial “feasting attention”.  Today, it seems that so often, and perhaps increasingly so with technology, our attention is being taken away from where it needs to be, from the places we dwell in and the relations that sustain us. As a teacher yourself, is this something you notice with your students, and if so, how do you cultivate and awaken people to what it even means to be attentive (something, I think I myself have only recently begun to understand)? 

Lilburn: Hunger is the great teacher. Plato tells us (Symposium) that eros is half lack, half cunning. This description works for philosophical eros, political eros, eros connected with attachment to and identification with a place, as it does with most sorts of longing. Hunger and ingenuity: I have confidence in these powers to draw at least some of us along. Also, it’s important to remember that the savouring of haecceity is deeply delightful. Eros and sorrow, in my view, are ways ahead, and one should resist any persuasion to abandon them.

Campbell: One reason, why I have been attracted to your work, is how you show philosophy-as-practice, emphasizing, as Socrates-through-Plato did, that philosophy is what turns the soul around. But I still often wonder, what is the place of philosophy and philosophers in this hurried and fractured historical moment, where people seem to be left with little time for philosophizing or even realizing what it is and what it does? Furthermore, philosophy has become institutionalized and its wisdom increasingly fragmented and dispersed through different fields and specializations. 

At the risk of posing a stupid question, how do you describe and explain the significance of philosophy for the everyday, as something that we can live with, and something that can be a part of us?

Lilburn: Philosophy is fulsome attention – which can occur in a moment – and conviviality, the willingness to engage in conversation about what one notes and what one yearns for or most deeply fears. That’s a pretty light toolkit. The monastery, says Zen, is wherever you are. The same could be said about contemplative philosophy and the hermeneutical circles that grow from it. 

Campbell: As the North American university has become increasingly corporatized and globalized, and as someone who works in college and university settings, do you think that the university can continue to be a site for the sustainment of wisdom traditions and meaningful practices? And furthermore, in your estimation, what kind of study and re-search is needed for this to occur?

Lilburn: Can the sort of undertaking I have been describing go on in the academy? Only, I think, on the edges, behind the surrounding shrubbery. Because the erotic, contemplative interiority I’ve been talking about and what gets us there, are transgressive, heterodox, not just in a university context, but throughout the culture. But there are pockets of practitioners here and there in most institutions, as I am sure you have found, and a handful of students are acutely aware of the philosophical poverty at the center of their lives and the thought-world they inhabit. Pandemic anxiety reports this poverty to us daily.

Campbell: As we stand at the precipice of an uncertain and deeply frightening global climate emergency, there has been a lot of increased talk and writing about ecology and what it should offer us. In my estimation, much ecological writing lacks significance for two main reasons: it doesn’t seem to stem from or be rooted in a recognition of self (and the journey of becoming we undergo); and furthermore, the actual dynamism displayed by living eco-systems doesn’t seem conveyed in the structures and form of the texts themselves. Your writing seems to possess both these qualities -- through your emphasis on interiority but also the bringing together of diverse themes and voices from throughout time, history and place. 

Can I ask you what the ecological essay means for you, and the extent to which you think writing as a practice can mirror or, in fact be ecological?  

Lilburn: [to attempt an answer-in-progress:] I do believe more careful thinking around gardening, and the political economy that arises from community gardens, needs to be done, focusing possibly on what sort of citizenship might be appearing within this activity. I also suspect more thought should go into what could be called dialectic, Plato’s meaning of it, and its maieutics, or could be called “spiritual direction,” this inquiry leagued to the thinking about gardening. I also like Peter Maurin’s/Dorothy Day’s notion of the agronomic university. But aside from all this, I have nothing sure to offer. I capture much of this rumination on gardens and maieutics (I hope) in a new essay: “interiority and Climate Change,” which is still in design.


This review originally appeared in subTerrain issue #79.

Contemplation and Place,

Contemplation and Place,

In his recent volume, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, Tim Lilburn calls for Canadians to embark on a personal journey of decolonization. Lilburn proposes that without a recognition of the deep spiritual and intellectual poverty that afflicts North American culture, the proposed “reconciliatory” conversation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples can have no hope of occurring. This is the condition of a settler who is dim to the land they inhabit, who is barred from their own interiority, just as they are barred from the practices of deep and transformative reading, of hermeneutic exegesis in the broadest sense. According to Lilburn, what is needed in order to ensure the conditions for this (as yet hypothetical) dialogue between settlers, Indigenous peoples, and the land we inhabit, is not top-down governmental mandates, but a dramatic revival of the significance of contemplation and place in each of our lives. 

“Yet still I hope, as others do, for a quickening of appetite and affection for place in descendants of European settlers, a yearning for the ground where one stands, a life based on a valuing and treasuring of the places that appear to recognize one, places with which the heart exchanges glances. This could be an important beginning for us...”

This book is exactly what I think is required in the emerging scholarly and literary work on decolonization in Canada. This isn't a dry and heavy academic text marking up conceptual territory: territorializing knowledge with confusing titles and jargon (“Fanonian antinomies,” with proper “material culture analysis”), performed, of course, with the noble intention of awakening all of us to the great injustices and hypocrisy that have determined the course and trajectory of modern Canadian society. Unfortunately, no matter how much these sorts of discourses say they align their intentions with real people in real places, often these “human” aspects evaporate behind the abstractions… when we leave the lecture theatre or put the article aside.

This book is much more in the tradition of mystical contemplative philosophy. Like the Sufi philosopher al-Suhrawardi (one of a cast of historical figures whose life stories and work drive and sustain the book), Lilburn suggests that these sorts of abstract rationalizing (peripatetic) discourses will ultimately fall short if not rooted in knowledge of the self. Without “the pedagogy of the journey” — where the author/teacher personally walks a path of transformation and becoming, and expresses honestly and sincerely their struggles and triumphs along the way — these intellectual displays do little more than point out the differences between us. Emancipation becomes a broken dialectic, where meaning is inevitably sought in the principle of non-contradiction and the logic of identity, "this is this because it is not that.” Through the contemplative pow­er of “seeing into things” (chapter six), of noticing one's own light in the light of another, we can perhaps heal this substance dualism, and come to embrace; "that this is always becoming that".

Conceptual arguments, no matter how persuasive, will never heal our incompleteness, and thus have no hope of deeply influencing our ethical conduct or ways of being. Lilburn emphasizes the severity of this detachment: “placeless, our identity is never fully developed and our anger, thus unnamed, is rampant, diffused. Without a relationship to land and the respect and ethical regard that come from relationship, we are dangerous and savage to land, as well as bereft within, nameless, unhoused.”

In this manner, Lilburn shows the reader how he came to recognize his own sense of “acute cultural poverty” growing up in Western Canada. He also shows how he strove to overcome this privation, through the transformative activities of scholarship and ritual. This is an inquiry into what it means to dwell; in places and ideas and in ourselves. Ultimately, Lilburn suggests that the forces that unmoor us and counteract our ability to sustain dwelling relations, are at the core of our current environmental crisis. 

 “Our incompleteness makes us destructive, ravenously, disproportionately, madly ungovernably hungry, afflicted with a hunger that may be a sort of uncomprehended mourning... This violence to land is met by the self enlarged by affection and gratitude for particular places, for places that seem to look at us and take us in.”