Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Great War for Civilisation

The Great War for Civilisation.

It is not overly difficult to understand why nations fail to understand one another and eventually go to war.  The history of humankind is littered with the pockmarks of various wars.  Just observing how human beings interact in the workplace and how misunderstandings arise is enough to realise that when we raise these small misunderstandings to the nth power as it were, that is, to an international argument level, then it is possible, even inevitable, to have a war.  We need only review the pages of our rather sad and depressing history on this small dot of earth hurtling through the vastness of space to realise how much innocent blood we have spilled for one “cause” or another, for one “perceived” wrong or another.  And today so many wars still go on in all parts of the globe.

Patrick Kavanagh’s lovely poem “Epic” gets to the heart of the matter by pointing out that local disputes are made of the same constituents as more universal ones, and how right he was.  This poem is worth perusing in full here.  Enjoy this poetic interlude:


I have lived in important places, times/ When great events were decided: who owned/ That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land/ Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims./
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"/ And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen/ Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -/ "Here is the march along these iron stones."/
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which/ Was most important? I inclined/ To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin/ Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind./ He said :I made the Iliad from such/ A local row.Gods make their own importance./

I have just begun to read a marvellous book by Robert Fisk called The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East (Harper, 2006).  In the preface to this tome of a book Fisk relates how his late father, a soldier of WW1, used to bring him annually on a tour of the battlefields of that so-called “the war to end all wars” (H.G. Wells).  On looking at the obverse of one of his father’s combat medals the following words were engraved: “The Great War for Civilisation.”  Hence we have the name of this wonderful book, and indeed how Fisk’s obsession with reporting the destruction and inhumanity and “pity of war” (Wilfred Owen) grew.  I will make further observations on this book in later posts.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Timely Piece of NONSENSE

CHRISTMAS CAROLS FOR THE DISTURBED         1. Schizophrenia --- Do You Hear What I Hear?      2. Multiple Personality Disorder --- We Three Kings Disoriented Are      3. Dementia --- I Think I'll be Home for Christmas     4. Narcissistic --- Hark the Herald Angels Sing About Me     5. Manic --- Deck the Halls and Walls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores and Office and Town and Cars and Buses and Trucks and Trees and.....    
6. Paranoid --- Santa Claus is Coming to Town to Get Me    
7. Borderline Personality Disorder --- Thoughts of Roasting on an Open Fire    
8. Personality Disorder --- You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm Gonna Pout, Maybe I'll Tell You Why     9. Attention Deficit Disorder --- Silent night, Holy oooh look at the Froggy - can I have a chocolate, why is France so far away?    
10. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - - - Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle,Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, 
This timely piece of nonsense was sent to me today by my good and loyal friend Tom Gleeson. Timely because I can get too serious some of the time. However, the writer of these posts does have a sense of humour contrary to suppositions.

The Liberating Word

The Liberating Word

From the moment we are born we are enmeshed in a world of words. To make sense of our environment, we need to name things. By naming them, objects become familiar to the growing child and he or she begins to feel at home in the world. Even as adults we are afraid of the unknown. We desire to name it so that we can have some control over it.

Fears cease to be real threats when they are faced squarely. Only when we have named the fear, psychologists tell us, do we start to tame it and exercise some control over it. Instead of fear controlling us, we now begin to control it. Once being named, it will gradually recede into the background.

In times of illness where we don't know what is wrong with us, it is indeed a great relief to have the medical specialist name the particular ailment. When the unknown has been given a name it now becomes less threatening. Once diagnosed, the illness becomes manageable and medicine can be prescribed. Likewise when the alcoholic names his or her illness and makes the statement, ' I am an alcoholic', both to self and to others, then and only then can the disease be addressed and controlled.

Considerable emphasis today is put on communications. Many colleges offer courses in this area at ever more elaborate levels than before. We are a people sailing upon a sea of mass communications. Yet communication in itself is as old as creation. We all desire to reach out and communicate with others. Words liberate us from the hell of loneliness and despair. We have a deep inner desire to share our joys and sorrows with other human beings. We can certainly share at the level of gesture, but the spoken or written word cannot be bettered. One of the greatest ironies in today's society is surely the blocking and stifling of real communication between human beings by the very objects and media of mass communications.

Writing, as indeed any art, is a good way of getting to know oneself. It has only more recently been recognised by psychologists as a great means of therapy, while it has always been seen as such, even though unconsciously, by writers themselves. Journalling is a technique widely recommended today, that is that we write how we feel in order to get to know ourselves.

In and through writing the will to meaning is embraced and expressed. This phrase, “the will to meaning”, was coined by Victor Frankl to describe the most basic need in every human being. He found through his experience in a German concentration camp that only those who could see some meaning in their lives had some chance of survival. He went on to found his own school of psychiatry based on this premise.

When writers use words they stamp order upon chaos. They dream a dream of order in a world of apparent disorder. They share this dream of order with their readers. In doing so they are giving meaning to the mystery of life. They are sharing their dream of order and meaning with their readers. Both writer and reader are the richer because of this creative urge to commit thoughts to paper.

If we continue this metaphor, we may properly call the Bible God's dream of order for creation and for humankind as pinnacle of that creation. God's dream of order, as expressed in the Bible, is the story of our creation and redemption, both strands being finely interwoven as the story of our salvation. Jesus himself is described by the evangelist, John, as the 'Word of God made flesh'. This Jesus was a lover of words, a maker of sentences, a teller of stories and a creator of parables. For the Hebrews, the spoken word was something very precious and personal, inseparable from and yet revealing the person who spoke it. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself through the words of the prophets. The New Testament tells us that the Son is the perfect expression of God the Father and all that God is from eternity. In other words, Jesus is, as the Father's perfect expression of himself, 'the Word'. He spoke both words of consolation and exhortation to his disciples. Truly for the Christian or believer this Jesus is the liberating Word of God.

The above article is a recovered document from an old floppy disc - written some eight years ago. I have not edited it and, therefore, have left in all the overtly Christian references. At the time I would have sincerely believed in their fundamental truth.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Of Books

“And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”(Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJB).  We are probably all aware of this famous quotation from the Old Testament.  It comes to my mind as I have just returned from doing some Christmas shopping in Dublin city centre and have had the occasion to go into two bookstores in search of presents.  This is a singularly dangerous pursuit for me as I cannot leave a bookstore without some purchase or other to add to my own personal pile of books demanding to be read.  There is a new Chapters bookstore open on Parnell street right opposite the Ilac Centre.  It is a fine big bright and spacious store with lovely leather seats on which to recline should one be inclined to peruse a book or two before buying.

There are many bargains well placed to catch the buyer’s eye and, boy, there were queues at the counters buying all those last minute presents.  Anyway, it’s nice to see that Eason’s are getting some competition not too far from their O’Connell Street branch – they’ve had (or more correctly have) a virtual monopoly of the book trade in Ireland and can charge what they like for a book.  I’ve always found Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street to be the best value in books and to have a range of titles far wider and far better categorized than that of their competitors.  I suppose this latter aims at a more high brow clientele being so close to TCD.

However, the new Chapters shop, like its older brother in Middle Abbey Street, is worth visiting for its unusually low-priced bargains.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I ended up buying 6 bargains for myself and some four others as presents.  Perhaps there should be an addiction called bibliophilia.  

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Spirituality of Depression

Coming up for air - towards a spirituality of Depression

There can be few diseases more distressing than depression.  Not alone has it both physical and mental/emotional components, but it can be notoriously difficult to diagnose.  Added to that, there has always been a stigma attached to an illness that might smack of mental instability.  Thankfully, due to the persistent good work of Aware, this myth is being slowly and surely eroded.  These reflections are occasioned by a severe bout of depression necessitating hospitalisation experienced by this writer.  Now a year later I am reviewing this experience and attempting to put some shape and meaning on it.  I am attempting to plot the milestones on the road to recovery.  What were the signposts that led me from the pit of despair?  Yes, there were medical interventions.  But there was more.  There was also a stripping away of all the more superficial accretions of the ego such as worldly success whether financial or social and a re-appraisal of my ambitions.  In short I began a review of my direction in life, to search for priorities that really meant something to me on a personal level.

Communications Down

The medical experts can give all the most learned definitions of depression, but the sufferers can only live with their experiences and hope to describe them as well and as honestly as they possibly can.  Most of us resort to images to describe this journey into, and hopefully out of, this frightening experience of depression.  The images commonly given by patients are experiences of being in a dark tunnel, being locked in a prison, being left to languish at the bottom of a pit, being in a desert, being lost in a thick fog or mist or being left alone on a huge empty ocean.  For me the experience was literally that of being lost in a thick fog.  Not alone was I lost without any direction home, but everything I saw was away in the distance behind this impenetrable fog.  One of the most appealing and accurate definitions of depression I have come across is that advanced by the psychologist and psychotherapist, Dorothy Rowe who describes it as a lack of communication with the world.  That is what is the most frightening aspect of this illness, the gradual withdrawal into one's own world and the inexorable retreat into the distance of the world out there.  You are gradually being cut off from contact with society.  In short communications are down.

The Dark Night of the Soul

I suppose if spirituality is anything it is most essentially a sense of relationship with the divine, with the source of life, with the Creator of this wonderful, if at times most painful, world.  In short spirituality then is about relationship, connection and communication.  Depression is the very opposite of all this.  It is a sense of lostness, of discontinuity, of disconnection, of lack of all relationship, even a relationship with the self.  One is shipwrecked on an infinite grey ocean with no hope of an island of release in sight.  For me there were a whole two weeks of hospitalisation which I cannot remember at all.  I was reminded by others, both relatives and friends and the nursing staff of the way I was during this time - totally disoriented, unable to recognize others, definitely cut off.  The medical staff had assured my family that I should come through this thick fog of disconnection after this initial two week period once the drugs had  'kicked in'.  They were correct in both diagnosis and prognosis.  Indeed I did begin to get better, and gradually the fog did indeed lift.

It is a great consolation for me that many writers in the mystical tradition allude to darkness and fog and mist as elements through which God can be encountered. In Exodus 19 and 20 Moses goes into cloud and darkness to meet God.  In this life the divine nature is not to be held or grasped.  Indeed it eludes all definition.  It is interesting for me that many of the mystics use some of the images alluded to above to describe the journey to God, i.e., darkness, fog, cloud and desert.  I am in no way implying, I hasten to add, that an experience of depression is the same as a mystical experience or vice versa.  I am merely pointing out some points of contact or similarity between the two.  John of the Cross divides the spiritual journey of the soul into 'the night of the senses' and the 'night of the spirit'.  The former stage, 'the night of the senses' refers to the 'death' of the senses to the objects and distractions of this world where the self concentrates its desire on God alone, rather than on any external ends.  The 'night of the spirit or soul' is more frightening because the self is stripped of any remaining spiritual gratification.  Psychiatrists speak of anhedonia, that is, a lack of interest in anything as one of the distinguishing characteristics of depressed people.  All their former interests recede and they are left in a totally indifferent state.  In a certain sense, this is a veritable death of the senses.  This is an extremely frightening experience because all the pastimes and pursuits and interests which one once held so dear cease to satisfy the restless heart of the depressed.  Also frightening is the lack of real contact with friends and relatives.  As I said above, I in no way wish to equate mystical experience with depression or vice versa, but what I wish to stress are certain points of contact.  I leave it to the experts to say more.  However, on a personal level I do get great consolation from reading the mystics, the Scriptures and especially the psalms now that I am a certain distance on the road to recovery.

Trusting the Experts:

The most important milestone on the road to recovery from any illness is most certainly that of trusting the specialist.  It is a definite prerequisite in recovering from a psychiatric illness.  For me this was certainly a major contributory factor in my getting better.  Without that trust or faith in the expertise of the specialist one is without direction. The experts refer to different types of depression: (i) reactive depression which occurs when faced with exceptional loss or profound trauma, (ii) endogenous depression which basically means depression coming from within, i.e., it is basically a chemical or biological type, (iii) manic depression which is also biological in origin and is marked by swings in mood from depression to elation or mania, and (iv) secondary depression which describes mood changes which result from an underlying medical problem e.g., depression following viral infections, glandular fever, flu etc. Mine was diagnosed under the fourth category as it followed a dreadful bout of the flu, but undoubtedly I feel now that there were other contributory factors over the years which obviously left my resistance low and consequently susceptible to viral infection.  These factors I now realise were certainly stress related and the result of taking on too many responsibilities.  Trusting the specialists meant taking the required medication and being involved in other ancillary therapies like workshops on meditation, creative writing, art, relaxation, music etc.  Pray yes, but also take the medical treatment.  We hear much about alternative medicine which to my mind is a definite myth as it writes off all too cavalierly the scientific knowledge of generations of medical research.  The appropriate terminology is of course complementary medicine.  It is definitely a case of 'both-and' rather than 'either-or.'

Courting the creative Muses:

There is perhaps no greater therapy than the discovery or re-discovery of the creative impulses which reside deep inside each of us.  For me writing has always been a hobby, from poetry to short stories and articles for various journals.  Indeed not all of my creative outpourings have seen light of day, but that really does not matter.  Immediately after my release from hospital I set about writing a novel which attempted to deal in some creative way with my breakdown.  Whether it gets published or not is really not at issue.  It was part of the healing process, a way of coming to terms with what had happened to me.  The encouragement of my medical specialist in this enterprise was also significant, as was his patient listening.  There is much aggression and no little violence in today's world, and this is because people's natural creativity has been thwarted and even eclipsed by a society governed more and more by materialistic success and progress.  The arts in general from music to dance to painting to theatre have all inherent within them precious doorways to the life of the soul and the spirit.  It is little wonder that writing, painting and music play such an important role in various complementary therapies.

The Healing Silence of Meditation:

I have found that giving some time to meditation on a daily basis very helpful also.  Real silence is a great gift.  It is so much more than the mere absence of sound.  Being still in the body is a necessary prerequisite to the stillness of mind and soul.  Entering the sanctuary of one's innermost self can be at times daunting, but occasionally very rewarding. During my recovery it was with great gratitude that I recalled the sessions on meditation guided by William Johnston, S.J. which I had attended some years previously.  His books have since been a constant source of inspiration and guidance.  I have also attended courses given by some Buddhist masters of meditation also.  Having said this, needless to say, I'm aware of the long tradition of Christian meditation.  I also find meditating with music in the background very rewarding and relaxing.  Recently I was asked to make a copy of a meditation tape for a friend of a friend who is dying from cancer.  I decided to meditate while copying it.  This way I felt I had forged some connection with this unknown woman.  When I had finished I felt I needed to write a poem about this experience.  In this way I had blended both meditation and the creative urge.

Returning to the Scriptures:

The Scriptures have always been a source of much nourishment.  The psalms are always brilliant as they can mirror our many moods.  Then of course there are our favourite texts from various parts of the Bible for consolation.   But for the Christian the focus must always be Christ himself.  One of the most obvious ways of meeting him must surely be in the Gospel stories.  Who then is this Jesus for me?  He is the one who reaches out to all seeking to liberate us from all that oppresses us, whether in body, mind or spirit.  The Jesus I meet in the Gospels is a Jesus who seeks to reach out to me, to heal me, to establish communication with me, to listen to me.  If depression is at base a lack of real communication with the world at large, spirituality is the presence of a healing communication with others, and most especially for the Christian with the person of Jesus Christ himself.

Coming up for air

The darkest moment, they say, is often before the dawn.  Those of us who have at any occasion reached rock bottom in life know that when we do so we also realise that for our own good, for our own health, for our own sanity, the only way is up.  It is rather like hitting the floor at the deep end of the pool.  In a short while we know we will be breathing air.  To come safely through this ordeal requires trust and faith in the medical profession, in our family and in our friends.

The above essay is one I wrote some seven years ago when I was in a Christian phase of being.  I am now in my more Buddhist agnostic phase.  I re-worked this article, leaving out all the overtly Christian allusions for an article for the Aware magazine, the main journalistic organ of the mental health organization of the same name here in Ireland.  It appeared with the following title: “Coming up for air – towards a Spirituality of Depression,” art. in Aware, Spring 2003, Vol. 16, issue 1, p.3.


A Sense of Place

What's in a Place?

It is often said that we Irish traditionally have, or had, an acute sense of place or locality. Many of our popular ballads may often consist of little more than strings of place names. When we meet others for the first time the question, “Where are you from?” is one of the first questions to be asked. Moreover, there is much current interest in the origins of place names, or in “logainmníocht” as it is called in Irish. This strong attachment to place would seem to be rooted in our history. Firstly, there was no Industrial Revolution to displace the population. Secondly, there was instead the long and painful tragedy of emigration. Little wonder, then, that those who stayed felt all the more identified with the places where they lived and that those who left tended to exaggerate the beauty of their native island with dewy-eyed nostalgia.

“Dindshenchus”, or the lore of places, was traditionally part of the common culture. The preservation and promotion of this lore was a specific duty of the poets who shared a lot of responsibilities with lawyers and historians. Place-lore was second in importance only to genealogical lore which, when recorded and recited in poetic form, laid the basis for the taoiseach's claim to power. The term 'Dindshenchus' refers to that body of 300 poems with prose synopsis which was compiled into one great unit in the twelfth century. Each of these poems sought to explain the origin of their title which was a place name. Their explanations were often strained and highly imaginative.

However, this attachment to place was a strong literary convention which reached further back than the twelfth century. From the earliest times, for example in the sagas and the romances, a story was fixed topographically and the characters were defined in terms of where they came from. For instance, let us take the example of the supposed origin of the name Sliabh Mis, south-west of Tralee in Co. Kerry. Several strands or layers make up this story: a definite foundation in mediaeval place-lore, a romance written in the fifteenth century and a further literary retelling from the eighteenth century. We read that Mis was the daughter of Dáire Donn who was killed by the Fianna at the Battle of Ventry. Having found her father's dead body on the battlefield and having drunk his blood, she became insane and fled to Sliabh Mis. She terrorised the whole barony until the local taoiseach sent his harper, Dubh Rois, to tame her with his music and his sexual prowess. He succeeded admirably in his task and restored her to sanity. On a similar note, it takes little imagination to see why the ancient holy mountain of Cíocha Danann or the Breasts of Danu (in Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry) was so called. Dan£ or Dana was the mother of all Irish gods and the great earth-mother, and she was worshipped from antiquity by the Celts.  

While the texts of the 'Dindshenchus' had little influence on the oral tradition, folklore shows an enduring interest of its own in local lore. It embraces such matters as historical happenings, supposed connections with heroes and saints, ghosts and fairies. Many humorous legends grew up with regard to the origin of place names. For instance, a beggar man was said to have complained that the inhabitants of a certain Derry town were 'done giving', thereby leading to the invention of the name Dungiven for that particular place. Another hilarious etymology relates to the story of St. Patrick who, having been struck by a stone, complained of the 'wicked low' people who lived there - no prizes for guessing the name of this town.

Lough Neagh also attracted the myth-makers. Its waters were said to be able to turn wood to stone. The great Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have scooped Lough Neagh out and to have thrown what he had scooped out into the sea to form the Isle of Man. Such lore lives on in the poetic imagination as instanced in Seamus Heaney's 'A Lough Neagh Sequence':

                The Lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
There is a town sunk beneath its water.
It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.          (1)

In practically all Irish writers a sense of place is central, and Heaney is no exception, but perhaps Kavanagh is its greatest exponent. Seán Ó Tuama judges the poetry of the latter to be the best example of the continuity that occurred between Irish literature and English literature in Ireland as regards this attachment to place. (2) As an emigrant in England, Kavanagh could not rid himself of his obsession with his native soil. In a poem entitled 'Kerr's Ass' he found himself naming the 'several names' of local Irish towns from the distance of London,

                Until a world comes to life-
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.                    (3)

Here, we have illustrated for us this enchantment with locality: a dynamic mixture of landscape, town land and imagination - a very Gaelic trait. Kavanagh did not lack a sense of humour as regards his native place. In The Green Fool (1938) we read: “The name of my birthplace was Mucker...The name was a corrupted Gaelic word signifying a place where pigs were bred in abundance. Long before my arrival there was much aesthetic heart-aching among the folk who had to put up with, and up in, such a pig-named townland. In spite of all this the townland stuck to its title and it was in Mucker I was born.”(4) But those “black hills”, at once inspiring and terrifying, make their presence felt often in his poetry and reflect his love-hate relationship with the soil. He calls them sarcastically his “Alps” and his “Matterhorn” – “hungry hills” forsaken even by the snipe. (5) These very hills, he realises, are the centre of his universe. In another poem, “Epic”, he informs us that he has lived in “important places” and that a local row over boundaries by two neighbouring farmers almost killed his faith in the importance of such local townlands like Ballyrush and Gortin. But then he remembers that Homer made his epic, the Iliad, “from such a local row.” (6) Ó Tuama argues that Kavanagh is here following in the Gaelic tradition of loyalty to place and that, further, his final line “gods make their own importance” suggests his hankering after the ancient Gaelic mythology associated with place. (7)

Brian Friel's excellent play, Translations (1980), centres around the anglicization of Irish place names by the British Ordnance Survey (1833), spearheaded by officers and men from the corps of Royal Engineers. Many themes intertwine in this play. It is at once a play about language per se, the death of the Irish language, land-surveying, a sense of place, the activity of naming places, transition from the old to the new and the fear of change along with all the complications and complexities these issues promote. All in all, the wholeness and the integrity of the Gaelic past pervade the play, coupled with the fear of the people of Ballybeg for its future and their own. Their hedge school is going to be replaced by one of the new national schools where tuition is totally through English; there is recurring potato blight; they have to acquire a new language; and because their townland is going to be renamed, everything that is familiar is becoming strange.

The sense of attachment to place has haunted practically every writer of Irish nationality whether in Gaelic or English. At the beginning of this century the poet, Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh, wrote a moving lament for his son, Donnchadh, who was drowned in Boston. The father regretted the fact that his son was buried on foreign soil and wished that he could be buried in more homely and welcoming earth:

Dá  mbéadh an codladh so i gCill na Dromad ort nó in uaigh san Iarthar         
mo bhrón do bhogfadh, cé gur mhór mo dhochar, is ní bhéinn id'dhiaidh air. (8)

Louis MacNeice, who was born in Belfast and spent the first ten years of his life in Carrickfergus before residing in England for good, was haunted by his native land even though he was often very critical of her violence, provincialism and conservatism: “And I thought I was well out of it.../ Though her name keeps ringing like a bell in an under-water bellfry.” (9) Are there echoes here of that mythical saint's bell that woke the four children of Lir from their spell and from their  centuries' captivity in the shape of swans, and which welcomed them home to the dry land of their birth and a Christian burial?


1. Seamus Heaney, see 'A Lough Neagh Sequence' in Selected Poems, Faber, 1980, p. 40.      

2. See Seán Ó Tuama, “Omós Áite: a rian ar scríbhneoirí in Éirinn', alt in Comhar, Bealtaine, 1992, lch., 177.

3. Patrick Kavanagh, see 'Kerr's Ass' in Collected Poems, London,     1972, p. 135.

4. Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool, Penguin, 1977, p. 8.

5. Patrick Kavanagh, see “Shancoduff” in op. cit. at 3, p. 30.

6. ibid., p. 136.

7. See S. Ó Tuama, op. cit. at 2 above, lch. 178.

8. See Caoimhghín Ó GÓilidhe, Díolaim Filíochta, Folens, 1974, lgh. 399-400.

9. Louis MacNeice, see 'Autumn Journal' in Collected Poems, Faber, 1980

The above picture is one I took of Dublin Bay from Clontarf. You can see the two ESB power station chimneys in the background.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bob Dylan's Lyrics

Bob Dylan’s Lyrics

As I type these words I am listening to Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountains” from his wonderful recent album Modern Times (2006).  His voice is much more cracked and much rustier than ever, but the rhythms, the rhymes and the lyrics are as wonderful as ever.  I have just come back from the local mall, Omni Centre, Santry, near which I live, having bought this latest CD from this guru of song, a book called Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001 (Simon & Schuster 2006) and my monthly copy of the music magazine Uncut (December 2006).

A portrait of an aged and grizzled Bob adorns the cover of this latter magazine.  There is quite a provocative and wonderful article within with the equally provocative title “Should we worship Bob Dylan?”  It quotes a singer/songwriter from both sides of this rather contrived and useless debate.  The first quoted is Mark E Smith of The Fall (neither of these have I ever heard of nor indeed listened to) who declares a solemn “no”, giving as his reason: “I find his lyrics extremely annoying.  It’s like ‘the moon in June’, it’s a rhyming dictionary.  It means nothing to me.  I’m allergic to it…”  But, to my mind, this rather sad individual Mark E Smith gives the game away by revealing his jealousy and envy for Dylan when he goes on to say, “I also had the unpleasant experience of playing just before him at Glastonbury.  There were 15,000 Dylan fans there and about 500 Fall fans.  I was so depressed I walked off and fell asleep the minute he started playing.”  (Uncut, Dec 2006, p 40)

Luke Pritchard of the Kooks (just as above neither of these have I ever heard of nor indeed listened to) who declares a solemn “yes”, giving as his reason: “What Dylan did that was totally original was to be constantly changing, but also forcefully direct, and have so much anger in his music.  And not necessarily about politics.  It’ morality.  His songs try to right wrongs, and that’s f------ genuine.  He inspired a generation.” (Ibid., p 41)  I agree wholeheartedly with this latter gentleman musician who sees himself as being influenced by this great bardic bearded song-writing American poet.  I wholeheartedly share his sentiments that Dylan is at once a great poet and a brilliant songwriter.  He shares this double wonderful accomplishment with his Canadian contemporary Leonard Cohen.

Flicking through the Dylan Lyrics book I alluded to above my eyes catch all those wonderful lines worthy of any great poet.  As an avid poetry reader, or rather an avid reader of poems, I find myself reading Dylan as I would the poems of any poet – just flicking through them and letting my eyes fall on the wonderful lines, this marvellous verbal candy.  I’ll finish this post with some random candy that caught both my eyes and indeed my ears.

Take these marvellous words of praise for that inimitable pioneer of American folk music Woody Guthrie:  “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song/ ‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a comin’ along/ Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn/ It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.”  Then there’s the wonderful “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which borrows a lot from ancient ballads or folk songs.  Then again let me take these lines as an example of sheer ecstatic poetry worthy of Bacchus himself: “Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,/ Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,/ The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach, /Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow./ Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,/ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,/ With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,/ Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” (1964)  Or again one can sense the loneliness in these lyrics: “How does it feel/ How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown /Like a rolling stone?” (1965)  Or the sheer simplicity and naturalness of these lines: “Close your eyes, close the door,/ You don't have to worry any more./ I'll be your baby tonight.” (1968)

Who could not love the lyrics of the veritable prayer and blessing contained in the wonderful “Forever Young”?: May God bless and keep you always,/ May your wishes all come true,/ May you always do for others/ And let others do for you./ May you build a ladder to the stars/ And climb on every rung,/ May you stay forever young,/Forever young, forever young,/ May you stay forever young.” (1973)  I could go on forever, but I’ll finish with a snatch from the wonderfully melancholic “Tangled up in Blue”: “Her folks they said our lives together/ Sure was gonna be rough/ They never did like Mama's homemade dress/ Papa's bankbook wasn't big enough./ And I was standin' on the side of the road/ Rain fallin' on my shoes/ Heading out for the East Coast/ Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through,/ Tangled up in blue.” (1974)

However, as music is the very language and indeed food of the soul, it is better to return to listening to the marvellous guru-like bardic singer-songwriter himself.  When he chose the name Dylan after the famous twentieth century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, not alone did he do something prophetic but he did something metaphoric or poetic.  As this Welsh bard put it, “Man be my metaphor”!

A presto, TQ.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Shadow Archetype

A Further Note on Shadow

In Irish folklore it is suggested that a person who has no shadow of necessity is the devil himself.  Interesting, no? Physicists, when talking about the images thrown by a light source on a screen, say that these images possess an “umbra” and a “penumbra” as I seem to remember from my long distant school days.  The site Dictionary gives the following definition of umbra: (i) shade, shadow from the Latin, (ii) the invariable or characteristic accompaniment or companion of a person or thing, (iii) the complete or perfect shadow of an opaque body, as a planet and (iv) a phantom or shadowy apparition, as of someone or something not physically present; ghost; spectral image. For penumbra we get the following definition: (i) Astronomy. a. the partial or imperfect shadow outside the complete shadow of an opaque body, as a planet, where the light from the source of illumination is only partly cut off, (b) the grayish marginal portion of a sunspot, and (ii) a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area.

So much for definitions – I always find them a good point from which to jump off, like a diving board that allows one to enter the water with some modicum of decorum or form.  I have mentioned Freud and Jung before in these pages, the latter more than the former as I find his insights useful to the project of living this life as fully as I possibly can.  Both saw that the project/goal/aim of psychotherapy was in making the unconscious aspect of our psyche conscious.  This, of course, as I have mentioned before is a lifelong task.  Two basic schemas which attempt very rudimentarily to come to grips with what personality is all about appeal to me by way of introduction to the psyche namely (a) The Johari Window and (b) the Iceberg Theory.

The Johari Window is interesting and simply to understand.  It’s a rudimentary and basic tool, but not very profound; yet it is very helpful and useful I think.  Joe Luft and Harry Ingham were researching human personality at the University of California in the 1950s when they devised their Johari Window.  Using a form of word derivation normally reserved for suburban house names, they based the title on their two first names.  Rather than measuring personality, the Window offers a way of looking at how personality is expressed. Luft and Ingham observed that there are aspects of our personality that we're open about, and other elements that we keep to ourselves.  At the same time, there are things that others see in us that we're not aware of.  As a result, you can draw up a four-box grid, which includes a fourth group of traits that are unknown to anyone.  These two areas that I have bolded and italicized would be the whole unconscious area of our personality.  Anyway, this concept is worth a look at if you are interested in personal growth.  The other basic theory, the Iceberg Theory of the psyche is also worth perusing.  The iceberg is a metaphor to help us understand Freud’s topographical theory of the mind [ (i) The Conscious Mind – very small part of the mind/psyche, (ii) The Pre-conscious Mind – small to medium and (iii) The Un-conscious Mind – a huge part of the mind/psyche].  The metaphor of iceberg describes this neatly for us and it goes thus: Only 10% of an iceberg is visible (conscious) whereas the other 90% is beneath the water (preconscious and unconscious). The Preconscious is allotted approximately 10% -15% whereas the Unconscious is allotted an overwhelming 75%-80%.   See the following useful link: Unconscious In fact Wilder is a marvelously creative educational site and well worth exploring if you’re interested in knowledge and its application to life and living.  

Now back to getting to know the stuff of this 80% of us, the stuff of the unconscious. I have often quoted Miranda’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. To rework the quote would be to say that “the stuff of the unconscious is what we are made of!” As I have outlined often before in these posts each of us has shadows that hold forbidden feelings such as shame, jealousy, greed, lust, and rage. Left to their own devices these shadows will become destructive saboteurs--causing us to betray our loved ones as well as ourselves. It is not within our power to choose whether or not to have these shadows; however, Jungians and many other psychologists of various schools believe that it is within our power to take responsibility for our shadows and put them to productive use.

I will finish with a few quotes from the Master himself, namely Carl Gustave Jung about our shadow.  Pondering any of them is well worth the effort.

  • The Shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapuetic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period of time. CW9: AION: 14,

  • Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions. CW 11: Psychology and Religion: 131

  • The task of midlife is not to look into the light, but to bring light into the darkness. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.CW 13: Alchemical Studies, p335

That is enough food for thought to be going on with.

A presto!

The above is an old picture I took some three years ago. You can see my shadow somewhere among the litter.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen – A Small Tribute

They say that music is the food of the soul. The music we listen to reveals much about us. As any reader of these pages will know I am practically a devotee of three great musical icons of the twentieth century, namely Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, in the late sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century I bought many of their records – LPs as they were then called. Obviously, more recently I have bought their CDs. Something in their songs caught my attention – perhaps or most probably at an unconscious level firstly. It was something in their voice which mirrored the authenticity of their soul, an honesty of heart, a congruence with self, an acceptance of the wholeness and integrity the of human enterprise in all its vicissitudes and a sincerity of expression. It is no surprise that all three are very spiritual beings in a broad sense – Cash and Dylan of the Christian persuasion of possibly different hues and Cohen a Buddhist with a Jewish background. Nor does it surprise me that the last should have spent 5 or 6 years living in a Buddhist monastery in California. (On California's Mount Baldy apprenticed to the Japanese Zen master Roshi.) Recently there has been a tribute film dedicated to the life and work of this great and enigmatic Canadian writer, novelist, poet and singer-songwriter. It’s called I'm Your Man and is based on a tribute concert that was held at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005 which was organized by producer Hal Willner. Cohen performs only once near the end accompanied by U2's Bono and Edge in a zesty rendition of "Tower of Song" at a special performance at NYC's Slipper Room cabaret. If you're at all a Cohen fan, you've got to see "I'm Your Man." Directed by Australia's Lian Lunson ("Willie Nelson Down Home") and built around the 2005 "Came So Far for Beauty" tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House, the movie features both stirring and quizzical performances. But it's fortified with excerpts from a biographical interview with Cohen, as well as testimonials from many of the performers as to his genius. However, some reviewers of this musical tribute-cum-documentary expressed regret that the work did not get to the heart of the man, that they were presented yet again with an enigma. One reviewer, whose name I forget and whose review I found among many others on the marvelous Rotten Tomato site had this to say: “This is not a satisfying film in that it leaves you with a lot more questions than answers. Cohen himself remains as elusive as ever. It is also far from being a great concert film. Maybe the filmmakers could never really decide where they wanted to go with this project. If you are a Cohen fan, as I am, it is still a film worth seeing. This film rates a C+.” Well, this reviewer, to my mind, is not too clued in on psychology, self-development or the life-long project of individuation (Jung), the process of self-actualization (Eastern spirituality) or self-actualization (Abraham Maslow) or even to a slight appreciation for the more spiritual (even if this is somewhat mystical or esoteric at times) quest that life is. Anyone who has listened to Cohen’s interviews over the years, and indeed they are too few (relevant snippets are available on the www and are easily found by googling the same), will appreciate the man’s struggles with life, his Buddhist equanimity and acceptance of his life’s journey in its wholeness and integrity, his honesty of approach, his truthfulness to self or as the great psychotherapist Carl Ransom Rogers would say his congruence with self. The snippets from the interviews with Cohen in I’m Your Man are nuggets of gold as Cohen is a mesmerizing narrator of his own life’s journey. It is no wonder, then, that his tunes, especially his cryptic, faith-probing "Hallelujah," have turned up in TV shows and movies to the point of cliché. I’ll finish with a few quotes from my guru songster. They are, needless to say, pithy sayings, almost Buddhist Koans in quality needing to be meditated over. He knows his Eastern philosophy artfully enough to conceal as much as he discloses. If, like me, you love the music of Leonard Cohen you will like these quotes.

 "He liked me for who I was," Cohen says of his Zen master. "Or maybe it was that he didn't like me for who I was. And, around him, the less I was like who I was, the better I liked it."

 "You have to write about something. Women stand for the objective world for a man. They stand for the thing that you’re not and that’s what you always reach for in a song."

 “I don’t believe in finding some (abstract) obscure objective correlative for sex… therefore the sex scenes and concrete body images rate highly in my first novel…”

 “I keep coming back to Canada to get sick… it’s a special kind of sickness…”

 “I’m all in one place!”

 “I’m not interested in posterity… Someone described posterity as “a paltry form of eternity”… Headlines like: “town finishes painting today.” I like that kind of horizontal immediacy, rather than something that will be around for a long time. I’m not interested in an insurance policy for my work.”

 “I just like to get up and sing my piece and sit down!”

 “You have to get into the centre of your own orbit… as Dylan says “You fade into your own parade.”

 “Take bricklayers – we can’t read the anguish of the man’s life in the wall… A writer must leave his anguish in his writing or work… if you can sell your anguish then you have probably done one of the best things you can do with anguish. “I’m for anything that gets you through the night” as Frank Sinatra said.”

 “Freedom - I feel free when I’m singing and I wish I was singing right now!”

 “I always thought of myself as a singer and kind of got sidetracked into literature.”

 “This old guy in his underwear with his guitar – there is something laughable and absurd about that…”

 “I don’t think that anybody has their act together…everybody is always on the edge of collapse, of finally throwing the towel in… pretty much nobody can stand what’s going down…”

 “Most of my songs are pretty poor, but now and again you hit it…”

 “If I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often…”

 “I have a notebook full of verses and sketches.”

 “I’ve never had much faith in my own take on things… the world far too complex for a solution - this is not the realm of solutions - we were exiled from the garden, that’s what I understand is the nature of the human predicament, this is not Paradise… Bigger visions, I don’t have the equipment, to penetrate, to unfold, to decipher this bewildering range of human activity that confronts me. I certainly accept that. I’m sometimes at peace at that and at other times riled up. I can’t figure it out, can you?”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

No Easy Answers to Difficult Questions

No Easy Answers to Difficult Questions

If you are a person interested in easy answers, then these pages are not for you.  I remember when I was a young teacher, very green about the gills and all of 22 years of age, a fellow teacher challenging me with the question “what is it all about?”  It was only years later, when Ger Smith had died at the young age of some 30 years, that I learned that he had suffered from a congenital heart disease from birth and that his allotted span on this earth was limited.  Hence the question, and that question did stop me in my gallop as it were.  Such questions are big questions and there are no easy answers.

I have always been captivated by the big questions not merely as an intellectual pursuit but also as an existential wrestling match with one’s own soul or spirit.  Other questions that have also fascinated me are questions about the origins of our universe.  I have read Stephen Hawking’s brilliant A Brief History of Time when it was first published.  I hasten to add that I did not understand much of it.  I was rather enthralled by the whole task this marvellously brilliant mathematician and theoretical physicist set before him – that fundamental work and project of all physics namely an ultimate explanation of the origins and destiny of the universe in complicated mathematical equations.  Understanding each little iota of the theory did not bother me at all, it was the very beauty of the overall project that caught my imagination.

I went on to read a marvellous introduction to his life and work by two physicist friends, Dr. Michael White and Dr. John Gribbin, simply called Stephen Hawkin: A Life in Science (Viking, 1992).  Therein we are introduced to this wonderful mind, prisoner of a most disobedient body.  A physicist, out and out, is Hawkin.  Not for him the rather tame answers of theologians and believers.  Not for him the cloudy thinking of metaphysicians either.  He has absolutely no time for the likes of Jung, to whose great work and marvellous personality I am very attracted, and certainly no time at all for Jung’s marvellous theory of synchronicity which I will explain in a later post.  White and Gribbin allude to the serendipitous fact that 8 January 1942 was both the three-hundredth anniversary of the death of one of history’s greatest intellectual figures, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, and the day Stephen William Hawking was born into a world torn apart by war and global strife.  They go on significantly to point out that Hawking would typically reply to this coincidence that “around two hundred thousand other babies were born on that day, so maybe it is after all not such an amazing coincidence.” (op. cit., p 5)

Stephen Hawking’s writings are brilliant.  I learned from this biography cum introduction that like Dawkin he has no time for much apart from his physics.  Consequently he is not really too concerned with metaphysics or psychology or soul work.  That does not reduce him in my eyes.  His outlook on the world could be termed to be stoic in that traditional sense.  He blames no one, and certainly no God as he is an atheist, for his severe medical condition.  Rather, he sees life as a mere question of luck, how the atoms and molecules or life substances evolve and collide.  We are, after all, to quote the great Bertrand Russell mere “collocations of atoms.”  However, for anyone interested in the big questions Hawking is worth wrestling with as is Bertrand Russell.

On the other side of the debate I am singularly put off by the dogmatism of the fundamentalists in all religions who have easy answers to all the big questions.  I cannot stand the self-righteousness of any of the Creationists.  I am doubly annoyed at the fundamentalism of the Bible Belt Americans who support the blind “gung ho” policies of the oil-man president George W. Bush.  Easy answers to big questions bring much suffering in their wake.  As I have mentioned in other posts fundamentalism in science I also eschew because it is simply as bad as fundamentalism in religion.  It reduces the questions to either science or mathematics and leaves no room for mystery, creativity, genius, aesthetics, spirituality, moderate open religion, morality or ethics.

An old school teacher who taught me many years ago had a lovely phrase or proverb which went, “always beware the man who has only read one book.”

This is where the philosophy of a good sound liberal education comes in.  We must educate our children in all the ways of human culture, both yesterday and today, in the liberal arts, in the sciences, in the human sciences, in sociology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, theology – in the whole enterprise of all learning in all its various categories.  Obviously they will only be able to study certain subjects in great detail as Renaissance man or woman is long dead.  However, we must educate our youth to open to all knowledge from all areas of human endeavour.  It’s too easy to dismiss.  Let us call upon the epistemology of the likes of a Socrates who declared his ignorance first before proceeding on his path to the discovery of the new.

Let us cultivate a system of education that seeks to ask the big questions; that seeks to continually deepen the questions; to make them more precise; to question easy answers; to be open to everything that’s new and novel; not to dismiss anything without giving it a fair hearing at the bar of living experience; to be open to the multiplicities of approach to subjects; to see intelligence in its multiple forms and not to reduce it to mathematics or linguistic prowess; to cultivate formation of character as well as information in facts and finally to promote peace and understanding between all humankind. The picture I have placed above is The Opening of The Fifth Seal of The Apocalypse by El Greco

A Poem and A Song

A Poem and A Song

The two offerings I have for my readers today are a poem by the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly and a song by the Canadian poet and song-writer Leonard Cohen.  They are both contemporaries.  I doubt if they have met each other, but I find them both profoundly wise in their outlook on life, on the human condition.  They both celebrate the ordinary things of life.  They are both “religious” in the broadest sense of that term, in that sense which has no denominational implications; they are both profoundly spiritual; they are both essentially “whole” in the sense that their art acknowledges the good and bad aspects of humankind, the dark places as well as the well-lit spaces in human life; they both spiritually live in the “now-ness” of the project we call life; they are both creators of their own projects; they are both poem-makers, members of that happy-sad coterie of weavers of words who search out meaning in their respective journeys; they are essentially both singers of the song of their very own soul, and like all great weavers of words they are essentially mystical and beautifully normal human beings.  They plumb the depths and soar the heights of the human spirit bound inextricably as it is to the body, that ageing body which we are privileged to call the very home of our self.  This poem and this song share much in common.  They both call on us to live in the “now,” which is the catch-cry of all the great spiritual traditions.  In this sense they are both profoundly religious and spiritual and Christian and Buddhist!  Cry with joy and laugh with sadness as you read them.  

Begin Again

Begin again to the summoning birds to the sight of light at the window, begin to the roar of morning traffic all along Pembroke Road. Every beginning is a promise born in light and dying in dark determination and exaltation of springtime flowering the way to work. Begin to the pageant of queuing girls the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal bridges linking the past and the future old friends passing though with us still. Begin to the loneliness that cannot end since it perhaps is what makes us begin, begin to wonder at unknown faces at crying birds in the sudden rain at branches stark in the willing sunlight at seagulls foraging for bread at couples sharing a sunny secret alone together while making good. Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.

Brendan Kennelly (1936-     )


The birds they sang at the break of day Start again I heard them say Don't dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be. Ah the wars they will be fought again The holy dove She will be caught again bought and sold and bought again the dove is never free. Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in. We asked for signs the signs were sent: the birth betrayed the marriage spent Yeah the widowhood of every government -- signs for all to see. I can't run no more with that lawless crowd while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud. But they've summoned, they've summoned up a thundercloud and they're going to hear from me. Ring the bells that still can ring ... You can add up the parts but you won't have the sum You can strike up the march, there is no drum Every heart, every heart to love will come but like a refugee. Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That's how the light gets in. Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That's how the light gets in. That's how the light gets in. That's how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen (1934-       )1992

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Compassion and The Shadow

Compassion and The Shadow All major religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity, place especial emphasis on compassion. Buddha saw compassion as being the very essence of his teaching and he appealed to his followers to witness to this way of being in their lives. It is very difficult indeed to think of two more compassionate people than the Buddha and Jesus. What is compassion? Here is the way the Dalai Lama describes it: “Compassion compels us to reach out to all living beings, including our so called enemies, those people who upset or hurt us. Irrespective of what they do to you, if you remember that all beings like you are only trying to be happy, you will find it much easier to develop compassion towards them.” However, before I can be truly compassionate to others I must first develop compassion for my own inner being, for my own very self. Sometimes we are drawn to pity another human being, but pity sometimes is not a very effective emotion really as it may lead nowhere. It may lead to no action whatsoever, and for a desperate person may even lead that person further down into deeper depression. Admittedly, pity can and does lead to action for some stronger individuals. But real compassion always leads to action and to commitment and to connection with other human beings, even with animals and plants – that is, all of creation. Real compassion starts with oneself. When I really befriend my inner and real self with all its strengths and weaknesses, with all its good and bad points, with all its areas of light and darkness, with all its shades and colours, then and only then can I really and truly reach out and be compassionate for others. This, of course, is another way of describing what I was writing about in recent previous posts, namely attempting to integrate the shadow aspects of the Self, that is, in more formal terms, the process of integration, the process of individuation or of self-actualization or of self-realization. These are all different ways of saying the same thing really, when we meditate and think deeply about this whole enterprise we call life. Compassion for self means owing the lonely little girl or boy in me; coming to terms with the black spots in my character as well as the brighter spots; owning the anger as well as the peace-making aspect of my personality; means accepting those weaknesses of character as well as all my gifts and strengths. Compassion for self means accepting and working for the integration of all those negatives and positives of character into a whole. Fortunately there is no such person as a totally good or a totally bad being in and per se. Great novelists, writers, artists and film makers attempt to teach us this – however vainly they try. Thankfully they never give up trying as all their art is a witness to this spiritual integration of self. Think of the great television programme The Sopranos. To my mind the writers and directors achieved something powerful in the character of Tony Soprano. Yes, Tony is a heartless murderer at times. Yet, he is not evil incarnate. No, indeed, the writers and directors manage to paint a sympathetic character. We see a man with many powerful contradictions – complexes he inherited from growing up in a very dysfunctional family. Then we witness him struggling to tame his shadow self in the psychiatrist’s office. I’ve heard some of my friends describe the programme as brutal and violent. It is too! Some feel uneasy because Tony is humanised too much! Is he really? You see, we’re all more comfortable with black and whites, with pure evil and pure good. These extremes are easier to accept in our minds, because if Tony is the incarnate devil himself, well then we don’t have to confront the possibility of evil in our own selves. Likewise what the German director did in the film Der Untergang or The Downfall is worth meditating on. The movie was written by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The film is based on the book Inside Hitler's Bunker by historian Joachim Fest about Hitler's final days. Hitler is presented as having some likeable human qualities – there were many objections to such a presentation. Obviously, to get to where he got Hitler must have had some redeeming human qualities. However, it’s not comfortable for us to admit that! After all Hitler was human not satanic. Let’s not project human weaknesses on unknown or possibly non-existent fallen angels! Germany's tabloid newspaper Bild asked, "Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?" and some within the German press questioned whether Germany was ready for a portrayal that could provoke sympathy for the dictator. Well surely the answer to Bild is simply a scientific one – he was a human being who was bad and in whom evil did flourish. In short what I’m saying here that the task for us as humans is to integrate the Shadow or negative parts of us. A lot of human beings never achieve this; some manage to integrate less than others; and then, I suppose “monsters” (as Bild described him)like Hitler don’t manage any integration at all, and project their evil, madness or insanity out onto an unsuspecting world. There is food for thought and meditation here! How much evil in me do I project out onto others in my world? Have I ever tried to integrate my own evil aspects of character, and by integrating them have domesticated and made them a part of a greater whole comprising a myriad of different qualities and traits that makes for a full integrated person.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Working with Opposites

Working with Opposites

The creative geniuses who have walked upon the soil of this marvellous, if at times frustrating, world have often been intrigued and puzzled by the power of opposites.  One such genius (literary, poetic and philosophic) was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and another was Carl Gustave Jung. (1875-1961)  From my college days I have been much taken by the works of the former, his Biografia Literaria being my favourite as it wrestles with what the human imagination is and what creativity is all about.  Coleridge spoke of his theory of the “reconciliation of opposites”.  He defined the "reconciliation of opposites," as a concept in which two opposite but equal forces will react to and interact upon one another so that a third force will result, which is different than the sum of both or either one taken singly.  Referring to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and to his daughter Sarah’s long introduction to an old edition of the Biografia, the critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978) has succinctly stated that the power that is in poetry and all art is the power we want in our lives all the time--the oneness of opposites. (Poet, critic, philosopher and educator Eli Siegel (1902-1978) grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the founder of the school of aesthetic realism in literature and drama).

Carl Gustave Jung was also most intrigued and taken by the power of polar opposites, the dynamic interaction and interplay, and the eventual integration of both which he was to see as essential to becoming whole, a word he loved and a word much quoted by Jungian therapists.   Another catchphrase of this grouping would be “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  This latter is a statement worth considered and deep thought and meditation.

A short brainstorm of opposites that comes to mind:

  • Good and Evil

  • Day and Night

  • White and Black

  • God and Devil

  • Up and Down

  • Bright and Dark

  • Happy and Sad

  • Youth and Old Age

  • The Winner and the Loser

  • Masculine and Feminine

  • Strong and Weak

  • Calm (Peace of Mind) and Anger

  • Love and Hate

  • Yin and Yang

One could go on and on with this list.  You can add your own for good measure.  I would also like to draw attention to a mathematical set of opposites which comes to mind at this moment – a pair of opposites most apposite to my subject namely differentiation and integration, which are very important concepts that form the basis of a branch of mathematics called the calculus.  However, it is from the standpoint of psychology that I wish to discuss these two terms.  As we grow as human beings we learn to differentiate ourselves from others and from the world, and, of course, we learn to differentiate all the various objects we encounter in our world.  So growing up is a process of separating out, as it were, ourselves and the existence of various objects one from another.  However, if we are to grow as human beings we have to learn to integrate many seemingly separate parts of us into the new whole of our personality, or better still the one true whole of our very own “Self.”  (I am deliberately using the singular substantive to emphasize my point.)
Working with opposites – “the oneness of opposites” (Siegel), the “reconciliation of opposites” (Coleridge) - as outlined in much of Carl Jung’s work and especially in his late book Mysterium Coniunctionis (written when he was 81)  is one sure way of integrating the personality, or of achieving what Jung terms “individuation” and others “self-realization” [knowledge of the real self in the yoga tradition where the term "self-realization" is a translation of the Sanskrit expression atman jnana (knowledge of the self or atman)]  or “self-actualization” (Dr Abraham Maslow,  1908-1970).

However one defines the goal of life - self-knowledge or “individuation” or these other terms mentioned here – getting to know one’s real self can only really and truly be achieved through integrating the shadow aspects of our character.   In the above list of opposites which I have brainstormed, the polarities must be integrated into a whole.  When we deny our anger we lessen our calmness and tenderness; when we deny the evil aspects in us we detract from our goodness; when we do not allow the expression of our grief or sadness we diminish greatly our capacity for happiness; when we fail to incorporate the hateful aspects of us we deny the potency of our love; when we deny the feminine in us we in like manner subtract greatly from the power or our manhood.   In like manner when we deny our ugliness, we lessen our beauty and when we deny our violence, we essentially diminish our capacity to be open and accepting of others.  

An exercise to help us in integrating our Shadow so as to become more whole:

  • What aspects of me have I rejected?  Have I rejected the feminine in me (if a man)?  Have I rejected the masculine in me (if a woman)?

  • What aspect of me do I hide away or deny?

  • What are all those “don’t be” messages I received as a child?  For example: “Don’t cry!” “Don’t be a sissy!” “Don’t be angry!” (selfish, naughty, dirty, selfish, unkind etc)  These I may have suppressed or pushed down into my unconscious.

  • What pet criticisms do I have of others?  In other words what qualities (which I deny in myself) do I project on others?   He’s a “know all,”  “a bragger”, “effeminate” etc.  These are probably all aspects of me.

  • What are my greatest fears?  Why? What do these fears tell about me?

  • What trait do I put most energy into defending? Greed, selfishness, meanness, competitiveness, slyness, unkindness, hatefulness, manipulation, deceit, weakness, bullish and bullying behaviour, hostility, anger etc.

  • What people in the world do I most hate and despise?  List them.

  • Who do you least associate with?

  • Am I honest about how I really feel?  Do I own all my feelings?

These questions are enough to be going on with.

I’ll finish with some random quotes which are appropriate and apt to my subject:

“The Gold is in the dark.”                    
   Carl Gustave Jung

“Direct your eye inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind as yet undiscovered.  Travel them and be an expert in home-cosmography.”  Henry David Thoreau

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This is more than enough to be getting on with.