Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Being and Doing Philosophers have always loved categories. Two such categories that remain in my mind are those of doing and being. It's great to “do”, to be involved, to be active, to be responsible, and to work, that is if one is so lucky as to have a job. Being so involved brings self-confidence, self-respect and a feeling of positive self-worth - all qualities greatly to be desired. It's also rewarding to “be”, to enjoy the very experience of living, to sit in the sun or the shade as is one's wont, to choose what one will do, to refuse to be bullied by the forces of society and its myriad expectations - in short the freedom to be oneself. This is the freedom to live each day as it comes, to live in the present or the “now” as both Eastern and Western spiritual writers put it. To be or to do? Or is it a question of either/or? Or is it both? Anyhow, to be an extremist in either direction certainly can lead to undesirable consequences. Firstly, those who are addicts to doing can and often do end up with stress, illnesses of various sorts, burn-out and possible break-down. Secondly, those who belong to the “being” camp, can become drifters, indifferentists of all hues, drop-outs, mavericks, eccentrics, odd-balls or even extreme hedonists whose catch-cry is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Like everything else, there is a middle ground. There is balance. There is equilibrium. There is moderation. How to find that middle ground that is the question. It takes years of practice. I suppose finding it has something to do with all the great religions of the world and with the universal quest for meaning. It certainly has something to do with what the Easterns call “awareness”, living in the “now”. Call it meditation or contemplation or whatever you like. Gurdyieff calls it “observation”. Richard Gendlin, the psychiatrist, calls it “focussing”. That's it really. They are all calling us to get in touch with our bodies, with our real selves, with the unconscious, with our souls. I am always reminded of the Snoopy cartoon I saw many years ago, the caption of which ran: “Sometimes I sits and I thinks. Sometimes I just sits.” Yes indeed, Snoopy was right, it is important just to sit and observe your own body; the tensions in it and try to allow them go, to get really in touch with the muscles, the nerves, the very guts of life. In that way we can learn to slow down, to go with the flow, to quieten down and just be. One important result of the constant practice to get in touch with body, self and soul is the development of what they call openness - openness to life with all its possibilities. With such openness things begin to happen. You begin to be able to resonate with all of life, animal, human, vegetable and inanimate. Everything takes on a new meaning, a transformed significance - somehow everything is interrelated and especially related to you. Things begin to happen, and nothing happens without purpose - coincidences cease to exist. Jung calls such occurrences synchronicity. Being open to life brings with it the overwhelming realisation that this is the way things were meant to be. Now that does not mean that fatalism should rule over our lives, that we should be passive before all the “slings and arrows” that life throws our way. On the contrary, openness requires courage, risk-taking, decision-making, striving for goals, but with one exception, one very big exception, this time you are striving in harmony with the real self and things begin to fall into place. It is here that we are very much in touch with what the Jungian psychologist, James Hillman calls the “daemon” or guardian angel, our essential genius, who is guiding us to our chosen vocation or path in life. Then there is the gift of freedom that ensues. It is empowering to meet human beings with the gift or grace of freedom. Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu of Cape Town, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Frere Roger of Taizé‚ Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and, of course, the founder of the L'Arche movement, the French Canadian, Jean Vanier are or were possessed of this great quality. We are empowered just by being in their company. They are so filled with the power of their own soul which flows through them that we in turn are brought to a new depth, at least momentarily. Even to witness them at a third or fourth remove on the radio or television is to enter a very sacred space, to be in touch with a new ground of being. Getting in touch with the body, the self, the soul, with the deeper sacred space inside allows you to carry yourself with more freedom, with a lightness of being, with a great sense of humour. You realise that it is such a tremendous gift or grace simply to be alive, to be able to be conscious of “the greatness and littleness of man”; the microcosm and the macrocosm of life; the infinitesimally small spaces of the atom and the infinitely large ones of the ever-expanding universe; the tragedy, the comedy, the tragi-comedy of life (as Patrick Kavanagh would have it); in short the sheer mystery of life and one's capacity to marvel at it. Call this spirituality, religion or God. The word does not matter. What matters is the awareness of something so wonderfully greater than your own being, of which we are just a small sentient part. Why this gift of awareness? Why were we blessed with such a great awe-inspiring gift, and to what end, to what purpose? Let's not try to answer. Let's live with the wonder, unnamed, because naming it can kill it. To learn to be, to get in touch with one's own “being” gives us energy “to do.” Hence there need be no dichotomy between “being” and “doing”. With constant practice, one becomes a great “be-er” and a great “do-er”, because one's doing is empowered by one's being. In short there is a flow of life, a vital power, an enlivening energy. There are, then, less blocks in us to the power of the spirit or the soul, which of its nature desires to live in us, until it consumes us in our death. Above I have placed a photograph of a wonderful cloud which I took over San Gimignano about two weeks back while I was touring Tuscany. Could any geographer or meteorologist inform me what kind of cloud it is?