Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Buddhist Interlude in an Irish Rural Fashion

Field of Vision

I remember my father talking of his grandfather, how at a great age he went up the fields and died there. He had sensed, I imagine, life drawing to a close and had wanted to go up and look upon his favourite field. Everything is there, in a field that is, all of life from beginning to end. There you have the rich brown clay, the very soil of life from which growth springs, the young grasses, the clovers, the dandelions, the thistles, the buttercups, the daisies, the hedgerows of hazel, the cattle grazing, the odd gap that must be fenced and kept in check. There you can witness the cycle of the seasons from growth to harvest to decay, from ploughing to harrowing to planting, from life to death and from death to life.

The depths of the personality are also something akin to a field, I sometimes imagine. All of life is there too: from the murkier, oftentimes unacknowledged corners of the psyche, what Jung called our shadow, those demons that haunt us in our dreams and nightmares. Turn a rock or a stone and myriads of little creatures run about: life in the rich darkness, even though it might send shivers down our spine. Then the cow dung, the manure, rich in its growth promoting qualities, but heavy with the smell of decay. The worms and maggots that crawl and aerate the clay can sometimes live in the gut, or a least some of their cousins can, both physically and metaphorically. Then we have the various levels of light that bend over the field, from the strong sun of a summer's day to the cold dark shadows of a winter's night which our imaginations people with demons and ghosts. They are all there, all kinds of life and half-life, decay and death, the clean, the fresh, the dirty, the stale. Somehow everything is part of a greater picture, a greater whole encompassing everything, both life and death...

I remember many years ago our Leaving Cert. English teacher telling us that, like Hamlet, we were all capable of committing murder should such awful circumstances befall us. That shocked me at the time. It does not do so now. “All Africa and her prodigies” live in us; all the stages of our evolution dwell within our genes; we are made of the very stuff of the universe; we cannot shake off our origins no matter how hard we try.  I am paraphrasing the Irish mystic and philosopher John here.  Put it another way, I love the very wise saying that has been handed down over the years: “There, but for the grace of God, go you or I.” I remember a rather strong and capable colleague saying this at a most appropriate moment when other staff members were complaining about how much work they had to do due to an illness of a fellow worker, which was perceived as malingering. He was right in his assertion, given the right circumstances any of us might be in a similar position.

And so everything is within, deep down in the great dark ocean of the unconscious, or to continue with the present metaphor in every unexplored corner, under every unturned stone, in every unacknowledged gap, deep in the centre of a cow pat, in the prickliness of the thistles as well as in the finer points of young spring grasses, the bounty of the harvest and in the line of the hazels seeking to keep the boundaries in order on our field of life.

Why are we horrified and why do we run scared when subjects such as sex abuse, incest, perversions of all kinds, gratuitous violence and illnesses of all sorts, especially mental illness, raise their ugly heads? Why do we project our worst fears and hatreds, our presuppositions and prejudices on others? We run scared because we have not faced our own internal demons, our own shadow side. Each side of any conflict demonises the other because it has not faced its own demons.

Every society needs healing, especially one where there are two opposing and conflicting traditions. But this also must be said, that every society needs healing precisely because it is made up of imperfect human beings, of broken and fragmented ones searching for meaning and support. A society which cares for the growth of its citizens in all aspects of their lives, physical, mental and spiritual is one that promotes its own well-being. In so doing such a society will unmask its own demons only to find that they were in fact angels of a different kind.

The real problem is to believe that perfection exists in some pure state. It does not. Just let us take this fact on board, and ponder it deeply for some time. There is no Utopia. There is no perfect field with lush grasses or crops always in bloom. Our field is neither a totally perfect nor imperfect one. It is somehow different, neither one nor the other, nor even both at the same time. It is a wholeness all of its own. It is always beyond perfection and imperfection. It just is, and that is all that matters. As we walk down that field to face our own death, like my great-grandfather did all those years ago, let us be blessed with an awareness of the wonder and mystery of it all.
Unfortunately I do not have any photographs of either my greatgrandfather or grandfather on my father's side, so the photo I have appended above is of my grandfather on my mother's side, also a real countryman or "peasant."

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