Saturday, July 01, 2006

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind

I have just finished reading a gripping novel called The Shadow of the Wind by a Spanish writer by the name of Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  The blurb on this tome – and it is a big book which runs to over 400 pages – reads like a sustained eulogy, singing praise after praise for this author and his magnum opus.  All the reader has to do is agree with these assessments after his has put down this addictive read.

Firstly some information about the author, though this is in no way necessary for the reader to know.  After finishing this tour de force of a novel, shot through with the energy and passion of such Gothic classics as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or say, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, I was driven by inquitiveness to find out some information on Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Well briefly then, he was born in Barcelona in 1964 only a block away from Gaudi’s famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia.  One piece of information about Zafón which is undoubtedly important to his style of writing is the fact that he worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles for a number of years.  No wonder, then, that he is such a superb and skilled plot maker.  He published four novels for young-adults before escaping everything to write THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, a novel that has become an international literary phenomenon in over 20 countries. His novels have been translated into more than thirty languages and published in over forty countries and they have sold three million copies all over the world.

Any way, I don’t wish to write another book review of this now modern classic, as many brilliant ones can be found on the net.  See the following link for good reviews - . All I wish to sketch here are my own thoughts on this marvelous book.

  1. I have quoted over and over again in these pages my favourite definition of style: “Le style c’est l’homme même" (Buffon).  Given this, we can say that Carlos Ruiz is a master of self-knowledge and in the expression of that self-knowledge with a style that is truly unique.  This book reads at a marvelously passionate and energetic pace.  Beautiful images from all the five senses, similes and metaphors just teem from his bountiful pen.  The author is a lover of words and before long he has us enchanted and firmly under his spell.

  2. One is enthralled as I have said as under a spell.  We are almost at a movie, so vivid are the scenes that Carlos Ruiz can paint with his words.  It’s like viewing an old Boris Karloff film or an Orson Welles’ movie. (For you horror film lovers see and )   As I have said above the Gothic novel is not dead, The Shadow of the Wind fits firmly and comfortably in this category of fiction.  We have all the decaying old mansions, the back streets and the dark passage ways along with all the larger-than-life characters.

  3. There are certain similarities with the writings of Umberto Eco, say The Name of the Rose – I allude to the level of the historical detective.  This novel is at once a thriller and a love story.

  4. There is also a very deep understanding of psychology at work in this novel also.  It deals with the human hearts deepest concerns – meaning of life, friendship and love.  However, the love portrayed is obsessive to an extreme degree, if the qualification here is not tautology.   There are also other obsessions at work – obsessions with literature, with Barcelona, the city where the novel is set, and of course obsessions with revenge and with death – all the stuff of Gothic horror.  It is also quasi-Freudian, because we have sons looking for their fathers or rather for their inner father and daughters and sons looking for long-lost mothers.

  5. The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller's art. For us Irish the importance of the seanachaí or storyteller cannot be underestimated.  Zafón is an enthralling and brilliant seanachaí.   There is probably a more suitable word for this in the Spanish tradition.

  6. In a totally different league or orbit even to the block-buster novels of Dan Brown.  Okay, Dan can spin a good yarn, can be a master of suspense etc but minus the passion, the style, the love of language, books, literature, psychology and love of place – all of which Zafón has in abundance.

  7. It is also a compelling political thriller with a sweeping historical romance, taking in the results of the savagery of the civil war, the world of the tainted Spanish aristocracy and of course the dark secrets born of Franco's tyranny.

  8. Plenty of love, magic, murder, madness, labyrinths of streets and of books, and twists and turns of plot to keep even the most reluctant reader engaged.

  9. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet there is almost “a novel within a novel” in place of the “play within a play.”  There are two parallel stories running side by side.  These are seamlessly interwoven one with the other.

  10. I thought that the motif or image or conceit even of Zola’s pen was marvelous.

  11. Zafón’s tour de force is equally matched by the beautifully stylish translation of Lucia Graves. of

  12. This book is at turns scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling.

  13. I’ll finish on point 13, unlucky for some, but in keeping with the Gothic nature of this novel.  This is a book about the healing and liberating power of the imagination.

Friday, June 30, 2006


Some More Books

I bought some books by one of my favourite authors today – namely A.C. Grayling – The Meaning of Things, The Reason of Things, The Heart of Things and The Wisdom of Things.  Four beautifully produced books.  I simply could not resist the temptation. Grayling is a very fine philosopher and cultural commentator and is worth reading again and again for his insights, and for both the depth and breadth of his knowledge and understanding.  In an article in one of the above books he writes about the aesthetics of Nazism, how Hitler had a very sophisticated if narrow, authoritarian and brutally stunted view of the beautiful.  Anything outside the classical 19th century German art Hitler dubbed as “degenerate”, distorted and “unfinished.”  Both Hitler and Goering were fanatical art collectors and literally robbed all the galleries of Europe of their art collections.  Those paintings they did not like or thought of as garish and “degenerate” they, of course, did not destroy, but rather sold on to foreign interested parties.

And this, strangely enough, or maybe understandably enough, was also to serve the maniacal dreams of a madman who sought to dominate the world and exterminate a whole race.  Hitler’s whole understanding of art and music, architecture and town planning were all aspects of his drive to power and control.  His aesthetics and ethics all derived from this delusional sense of his own power, from the crass projections of his own inflated ego.

Read Grayling – he’s brilliant!  Then read anything you can get your hands on by Primo Levi who spent time in the hellhole of Auschwitz.  Then read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl who spent years at another concentration camp, namely Dachau.  Frankl was a world-renowned psychiatrist who wrote this famous book in his mind over the period of his incarceration.  When he was eventually liberated he was able to write it down from memory.  It was in the Dachau camp that he invented his own school of psychotherapy called “logotherapy”, namely that the most fundamental urge in any human being is his search for meaning.

Relections on the Contingency of Life

Fragility nó Leochaileacht

Sean Ó Ríordáin, the great Irish poet of the twentieth century, alluded to things of this world being fragile or, in that beautiful Irish term for this, “leochaile.”  Yes the world is “fragile” (Fr), “fràgil” (Sp) or “fragile” (it).  Not much difference in the Romance Languages with respect to this term.  There ends my linguistic prowess.  However, it is startlingly true that things are impermanent.  The impermanence of things is a central tenet of the philosophy of Buddhism.  Nothing lasts forever, and things are constantly in a state of flux.  I am reminded of  Heracleitus’ famous dictum that you cannot step into the same river twice.  I am further reminded of a Buddhist sage’s retort to a question from a Western professor of philosophy, who was trying to catch him out, that “we cannot step into the same river even once,” such is its state of constant change.  Things pass away, fall away, are washed away, burn down or out and new and different things come in their place.  The laws of physics are irrefutable, – they state somewhere that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but rather changed from one form into another.  The cells of our poor bodies will decay and pass back into the chemicals whence they were formed.  Such is our lot.

Buddha and his followers remind us that the single greatest cause of suffering is our dependence on things, our dependence and, of course co-dependence on other human beings, our sense of clinging onto things in the desperate hope that we will somehow hold on to them.  Alas how stupid we are.  What can we really hold onto in this world of appearances and shapes?  I’m constantly reminded of my father’s wise saying: “There are no pockets in a habit (=shroud).”  How true!  Nothing lasts forever.  Everything has a built-in life span, in the genes as it were.  After all, ageing is a code in the DNA of every organism.  But, of course, every organism belongs to a cycle, which continues ever onward, unless that particular organism had no offspring.

I am also reminded tonight of those few words from Virgil: “Sunt lacrimae rerum” – all things partake of tears .  Or as the famous Economist Keynes put it: “What does it matter – in the end we are all dead anyway!”  Or as a famous serial murderer on Death Row (named “The Animal”, by both guards and inmates) in Huntsville Prison, Tennessee put it so succinctly “The bottom line is that none of us get out of this life alive!”

Anyway, there I was this evening meditating and the tears came to my eyes as I meditated in the light of a candle looking at the clouds gently passing the window of my attic.  I was suffused in a sense of the fragility of things, of “leochaileacht na beatha”, of my ageing and demented mother, of her childlike ways, of her short term memory approaching nil or zero.  Is not the death of personality real death anyway?  Are dementia and Alzheimer’s not living deaths in actuality?  What remains of my mother?  What remains of me?

And what a wonderful planet we have – the blue planet, so alive, so wonderful, supporting life in its millions of biological forms.  And yet seemingly it’s the only one of its kind in the entire universe.  Or is that really so?  Is there other life out there?  Are there other forms of life out there apart from life as we know it?”  Big questions for a small mind.  Big questions for a small people, but we need such questions to keep us going.  The unexamined life is not worth living and the unlived life not worth examining to conflate Socrates’ famous saying.
The above is a picture of some delicate buttercups I took at Newbridge House two weeks ago.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Primo Levi Revisited

Some more Insights from Primo Levi

Over the last few days I’ve finished Primo Levi’s book on Auschwitz.  I was greatly moved by this book and by the objective style of the author who really had the ability to transport me there, to begin almost to feel the existential angst felt by the inmates.  It’s a powerful book, and a brilliant testimony to the human spirit and to the magic of the faculty of the imagination to capture such horrors so well.
I was intrigued and enlightened by his contention that “the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.” (87) He also contends that there were only two types of men at Auschwitz – the saved and the drowned.  There were no in-betweens.  The drowned were those who were called “musselmans”, Auschwitz slang for those non-beings who had given up the will to fight, they were the walking dead.  The saved, on the other hand looked out for themselves alone and who by “savage patience and cunning” found “a new method of avoiding the hardest work…he will try to keep his method secret…he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival.” (88) Needless to say, there was absolutely no moral code within the camp.  Then I read of the grotesque and absurd idea of the men taking a test in chemistry in the hopes of being “employed” in the chemical laboratory based in the Buna factory.

Then this story – obviously a story that separates the saved man from the masses of the drowned non-entities:  “Clausner shows me the bottom of his bowl.  Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: “Ne pas chercher a comprendre.”  

People disappeared in Auschwitz on a daily basis, if not hourly, and were as Levi puts it, “cancelled from this world.”  

Then I’m brought back to Levi’s survival strategy with these words:  “We are old Haftlinge: our wisdom lay in  ‘not trying to understand’, not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would be all over; not asking others or ourselves any questions.” (116)

Or this interesting insight into languages, or rather the subversion of languages:  “In fact we were the untouchables to the civilians…they hear us speak in many different languages, which they do not understand and which sound to them as grotesque as animal noises.”  (120-121)

“If the lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing…” (123)

One thing I am overwhelmed by is the German or Nazi desire to make lists constantly, no matter how miserable the situation was for inmates, and further, no matter how near the end of the war was – they were making lists even as they could hear the enemy fire getting closer and the ground shaking!
And the ubiquity of the horrible nature of death: “In full darkness I found myself fully awake.  “L’pauv’-vieux” was silent; he had finished.  With the last gasp of life he had thrown himself to the ground: I heard the thud of his knees, of his hips, of his shoulders, of his head.”  (172)
Survival according to Levi depended on knowing German and entering the camp in good health.  Added to that you had to have a lot of luck.  I remember the great mathematician and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking maintaining that how one fared in life was simply a matter of luck at bottom.  He was referring to the fact that he had developed the horrible disease of motor neurone disease, but was quite stoical in his attitude.  No need bemoaning the fact, just get on with living.  
All in all Levi’s book is a fascinating, enlightening, challenging and disturbing read.  All good literature can and must do that for the reader.  I am thankful to have read it and will hold its wisdom in my soul as best I can.
I also bought another few books recently while out walking: - Big Numbers by the husband and wife scientific team of Mary and John Gribbin.  It’s a fine book to dip into and to marvel at the beauty and complexity of numbers and the universe they attempt to describe in their specific symbolic way.  I also bought a marvellous book in tribute to Sr Stanislaus Kennedy who founded Focus Ireland, the organization that supports the homeless.  She has also gone into the area of helping refugees also.  There was a beautiful article in that book by Fr Peter McVerry, SJ, brilliant and sharp and with an edge.  This is no surprise given the fact that he works with homeless young men, and has devoted decades of his life to this task.  The title of his article is brilliant: “God is Unfair, Thank God”.  This is an apt title and so true.  What McVerry is getting at is that God’s ways are not our ways.  I’ve heard it put this way: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  McVerry illustrates his article with loads of stories from the Gospels, how God shows mercy to those whom the rest of us would not.  God pays all his servants the same wages no matter how much work they have done.  We’d all feel cheated would we not by this type of justice?  Yes, I liked this article, and I positively loved his definition of Christianity along these lines: “If the Jewish faith proclaimed a God-whose-compassion-is-observance-of-the-law, Jesus proclaimed a God-whose-passion-is-compassion.  (An Easter People, edited by John Scally, Veritas, 2005, p. 53)  I also was spellbound by Brendan Kennelly’s poetry and by the headier philosophical article by the philosopher-poet John O’Donohue in the same book.  I am also reading Dorothy Rowe’s excellent book The Courage to Live: Discovering Meaning in a World of Uncertainty (Harper Collins, 1994).  This book is much more detailed and much more complex is its exploration of the psychology of belief, the purpose of life and how essential it is that people have a meaning to their lives whether this be expressed in overtly religious terms, psychological, ethical or simply humanistic terms.  With such a personally assimilated and formulated meaning a person lives a more authentic and less stressful life.
The above photo is of one of the guard towers at Dachau.

A Further Note On Meditation

Mark Epstein and Meditation.

I finished Mark Epstein’s wonderful book Going on Being yesterday.  What a wonderfully enriching book it is. Mark strikes me as a wonderfully authentic and together person.  I appreciate that it is stylistically inappropriate and inept to use the same adverb twice in such close conjunction, yet “wonderfully” is so well worth repeating.  Epstein recommends that we should always be really open to all our experiences, shutting out none, especially if they are painful ones:  “…the route to nirvana was clearly through the development of an accepting attitude toward all aspects of our experience, including emotional ones.  This meant making room for them, even if they made me uncomfortable, developing a kind of tolerance for the most disturbing aspects of my psyche.”  (155)

I was also intrigued by this piece of information: “In many Eastern traditions, of course, the word ‘mind’ encompasses more than just the organ of thought.  The mind is not even thought of as localized in the head.  It extends to the heart, so that one word represents both our concepts.” (156)

Then that awful frightening abyss that we meditators encounter! This is what Mark says, quoting a hero of his:  “The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses it,” Jack Cornfield repeated, quoting an Indian guru known as the bidi wallah, a teacher who was enlightened from his perch on an Indian street-corner selling inexpensive cigarettes (or bidis) to passers-by.”  (157)

Or this insightful piece on how well we really know who we are – our so called many masks, our ever strong ego and the world of our feelings - “We fear our feelings precisely because they have the power to overwhelm us.  Our conventional self, who we think we are, disappears in the heat of passion or excitement or sorrow.  We fear this loss of self because it reminds us of what a tenuous hold we have on ourselves in the first place…. The self we are afraid of losing is a false self.  If we can learn not to fear our feelings, we gain access to the real.  We have the opportunity to reclaim our going on being.”  (161)

Epstein recommends that we should stay with whatever our original feelings are in any particular situation for somewhat longer – we must cultivate patience.  I liked this quote also: “The willingness to stay in the uncomfortable feeling when there is nothing else to be done is the cornerstone of Buddhist wisdom.”  (163)…  Or to put it metaphorically,“There’s always another train.”

There is, he says, a very important phrase in therapy, which goes:  “Follow the effect”. (163) This means that the therapist should attend closely to the emotional reality of what the client is saying and how they are saying it.  Content is less important.  I suppose the best way to summarize this is to write this piece of advice down:  “Stay with the uncomfortable feeling!”  Jack Cornfield, apparently, had always advised staying with and embracing “the emotional body.” (164) The Buddha’s advice (like advice to the musician on the lute or the plough man with the plough or the carpenter with the saw (TQ)) is as follows –“If energy is applied too strongly it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax it will lead to lassitude. (JC)”see p 170.

Mindfulness is often said to be like the lead horse of a pack of five – if the ability to maintain moment-to-moment awareness is maintained, the others naturally follow.

Here’s interesting advice from John Cage, the composer, whom Epstein quotes:  “In Zen they say: If something is boring for two minutes, try it for four.  If it is still boring try it for 8, 16, 32, and so on.  Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but rather very interesting.”  (176)  

Don’t fix the pain, feel it…

The Diamond Sutra:  “The world is but a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”  Quoted p 190.

The following insight is profound and resonates with my own experience:

“But it is the unmistakable consequence of mindfulness meditation that we start to notice that we are no longer necessary.  Thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reactions all arise of their own accord.  It is quite possible to notice them without identifying with their content, which is a strange and awesome experience, akin to watching waves pounding against the shore in anticipation of a big storm.  They just keep on coming.  The original Pali word for a Buddhist monk or renunciant (sic) is “bhikkhu” and means “fear seer”, one who can tolerate his own terror.  At the point in meditation where the first glimpse of lack of identity is realized, the terror can become quite pronounced.”  (191)…Emptiness and “empty phenomena rolling on and on…” In Buddhism it is compared to an open-eyed man falling backwards into a well.

Or this intriguing situation which I can resonate with also: “But at certain times in meditation we can observe thought just as it is forming, just as it is bursting into consciousness.  This is a very strange experience at first, for it immediately begs the question “Who is thinking?”  The thoughts appear to come from nowhere, and the tendency to identify oneself as the thinker of those thoughts is loosened.”  192

Or this further elucidation is also enlightening:
“”Formations, the meditator begins to realize, “break up all the time.”  The image that is used to describe this stage of meditation is one of the sage with a burning turban; the volatile nature of reality is literally upon him.”  193

Death and Dissolution:
“Wherever a meditator turns, he finds only dissolution.  Death is everywhere.” (194)…. The groundlessness of the world, its insubstantiality… nothing is lasting or stable … 195

“If things do not exist in their own right and are flickering rather than static, then we can no longer fear demise.  We may fear their instability, or their emptiness, but the looming threat of death starts to seem absurd.  Things are constantly dying, we find.  Or rather, they are constantly in flux, arising and passing away with each moment of consciousness.”   195

Thus we have the transparency and interconnectivity or interconnection of life.  There is no absolute severance between life and death – they are rolled into one.  TQ

The three Cravings: 2nd Noble Truth: - 1.sensory pleasure, 2 Being, the desire for more, if only I had got a 1.1, if only we were still together etc 3 Non-Being…, the death wish, if only I were dead etc p 203.

As the Buddha said:  “It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve.  Attain perfection through diligence!”  (207)

What meditation has done for Mark Epstein:  “I have seen how it is possible to change, not by making my problems go away or even by exploring them more deeply, but by cultivating my capacity to accept things as they are… Meditation has enabled me to take possession of myself, to inhabit myself, not through identification but through acceptance.” 213.

“Meditation seems to me an effort of re-parenting” 214 brilliant, presumably Mark is referring to re-parenting the self.
This book is well worth buying for anyone interested in Buddhism, meditation and/or counselling. See or any other book site for bargain copies of same. The picture I have uploaded centre above is of a turtle at Parc de Montsouris, Paris, near which I was staying with my friends Mat and Isa Staunton in early June this year.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Role Models

Who are my role models?

I’ll try to answer this question historically, I think.  In primary school who were my role models?  When I got into third and fourth classes primary it was definitely Mr Murray my teacher – an elderly man coming to the end of his life as a teacher.  He was a marvellously good teacher and as a little boy I felt I learned such a lot from him – all that wonderful information about subjects from maths to geography to Irish.  At primary school I was not very good at P.E. or physical exercise.  I never made any school team.  Certainly I played football on the streets.  I suppose one other teacher Seán Ó Sé whom we had in fifth class.  He was a marvellous teacher, precise, exact and committed to his job, though one very seldom saw his really human or softer side.  Yet I was enthralled by the clarity of his teaching and his commitment to the task at hand.

In secondary school about four people stand out:  Bro Collins who was a brilliant teacher rather like Mr Ó Sé from primary in his approach, Br Russell our honours maths and religion teacher from 5th and 6th year, and then two interesting and different teachers - Mr Michael McLoughlin and Mr Gerry Hogan.  These latter two were very inspiring people.   Mick McLoughlin was an absolute gentleman and scholar with a very human approach to teaching.  He explained things very well and had a marvellously unique sense of humour.  He was also very helpful when explaining things.  Then Gerry was really unique – he was brilliant at French and gave me my love of languages.  He also had a riveting understanding of philosophical questions and enthralled me with his take on dreams and psychological questions.  

An interesting question would be were there any role models outside teachers.  None that I can think of now.  Is it any wonder that I became a teacher?  

In college I suppose role models would have been Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J, who had a deeply human and spiritual take on life.  From him I got my interest in meditation.  No wonder I went on eventually to write a book on meditation.  Other role models would have been Fr Pat Carmody a fantastic philosopher and Fr Pat Wallace who was surely a visionary with respect to religious education and spirituality.  Then there was Benedict Hegarty, OP, a Scripture scholar whose sense of humour I really liked and the light way he carried his knowledge.  In English I suppose John Devitt was inspiring.

All of these role models were in the field of education.  On a personal level one of my friends, Tom Gleeson, was and is an inspiring role model.  He is true to self, a really authentic and together person.  I learned a lot from him as regards teaching and personal development.  I owe to him the fact that he introduced me to Tom Hamill, a brilliant and unique adult educator – a scholar and a really sharp educationist.

I suppose, as I’m aging, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy and the South African Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton would rate as heroes.  Others would be Mother Teresa, Frere Roger of Taizé, Thich Nhat Hahn, William Johnston SJ, Thomas Merton and the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello.

So much for role models and heroes.  I have noticed that the more I gain a sense of my own soul, the more one’s heroes recede into the background.  Nevertheless, those role models are there all the time in the background.  I owe them my soul!

The Art of Effortless Living - Ingrid Bacci, Ph.D.

A Personal Development Interlude

I have just read 3 chapters of Ingrid Bacci’s wonderful book The Art of Effortless Living. As I type I’m aware of the wonderful power of the imagination – of what’s termed visualisation.    Points that stick in my mind are – the need to practise receptivity to the world around us by being awake and aware and open to experiencing it in all its wonders which are literally under our noses, to use a rather stupid cliché.  Smell the grass if you have no roses.  Breathe in the air and really experience it.    As she says, and I agree wholeheartedly with her, “receptivity is about letting go of planning and forcing, allowing ourselves instead to be guided.” (251).   I’ve always loved the phrase “to go with the flow.”  This captures for me the miracle of life.  There’s nothing passive in this approach to life at all.  It’s about letting your energy go in the direction of the energy of life or of circumstances at that particular juncture.  I’m reminded of what my friend the judo teacher, Alan Martin, says about judo that it’s about using your energy wisely, by using your energy in tune or in synch with that of your opponent and in so doing being able to stop him hurting you, or stopping him or her in their tracks in a rather creative rather than destructive fashion.

Another thing Dr Bacci recommends is the cultivation of the practice of being alone.  This is one I’ve been cultivating myself for years and I wholeheartedly agree with her.  Silence for me is very creative and empowering experience.  My best creative works spring from its fertile soil.

I also learnt from this wonderful book that at base the word “emotion” comes from a root meaning the movement of energy.  I found this a wonderfully liberating definition.  Grief needs to express itself through the movement of huge energy pent up within – hence crying, wailing, lamenting, allowing that pent up energy to flow constructively away.  Likewise with anger, joy, sadness, loneliness etc.  The worst experiences we live through are all caused by blocked emotions, i.e., blocked energies which end up crippling our bodies.  Even disappointment and all the frustrations we feel on a daily basis eat up much needless personal energy.  Doing something imaginative and relaxing can use such energy more creatively.

I loved her take on what she terms “the illusion of control.”  This is the way she puts it: “Most of us would rather stay in the illusion even if that makes our lives harder.  We’d rather pretend that if we just can keep on deciding how things are going to go, then life will turn out better.  But control is an illusion.  It’s when we try to control the outcomes of our relationships that we find frustration and disappointment, when we try to control our bodies that we get sick, when we try to control over nations that we end up in wars that destroy us all.” (263)

I also was quite taken with her description of passion: “Real passion is about being swept away by our own inner vision.” (267)
I loved the title of a book she quotes: Wherever You Go There You Are. (by John Kabat-Zinn)  (274)
Then she asks her readers to tell who their role models are.
Almost effortlessly the flowers bloom on the whitethorn tree. i took this picture in Newbridge House some weeks ago.

More Apt Words 3

Primo Levi’s Insights into Hell Continued:

Now I’m at home, having read another three chapters of Primo Levi’s book on Auschwitz.  I’m still enthralled by his style.  The French critic, Bouffon, (about whom I’ve already written in another post on style.  See this link here) in the late nineteenth century has classically defined style by saying:  “Le style, c’est l’homme même,” or “Style is the man himself.”  This is as neat and as succinct a definition as one could possible get.  Levi’s style is spare, precise, clipped and understated.  The word that would normally come to mind is “beautiful,” but the use of such a word with respect to the style of a writer about Auschwitz seems somehow inappropriate.  However, on second thoughts, perhaps it’s very appropriate because Levi’s soul is beautiful.  It takes a great and beautiful soul to write so objectively and with such art.  That such a beautiful soul can sing such pain in such beautifully haunting words is a miracle in itself, a testimony to the perennial pursuit of meaning which lies at the very heart of the human being.

If I could talk to Primo Levi I’d tell him all the above, about how moved I am in reading his words.  I would also say to Primo, “I’m listening, continue with your story!”  I’d say these last few words because that was every inmate’s worst nightmare – that he was telling his story to someone and that that person walked away without saying anything at all.  To listen to another human being’s story is the most precious gift you can give anyone.  I have long been convinced of this fact. “Primo,” I’d say, “your book speaks and sings to me!”

Images that stick in my mind from the last few chapters are as follows.  First there is the ubiquitous mud of which Levi states: “At every step I feel my shoes sucked away by the greedy mud, by this omnipresent Polish mud whose monotonous horror fills our days.”  (67) The latrine is another – it’s a stinking inhuman cesspool, yet, “The latrine is an oasis of peace.” (68)

Then there is the power of that great and wonderfully life-begetting star – our sun.  What an image!  In the hell that was Auschwitz it brought some little crumb of comfort.  Listen to Levi’s words: “Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud.  It is a Polish sun, cold, white and distant, and only warms the skin… and when even I felt its lukewarmth (sic) through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun.” (71)

Then the eternal or even infernal symbols of numbers and letters:  Speaking of the great depressing ugly mass of the Buna factory we read “its roads and buildings are named like us, by numbers and letters, not by weird and sinister names.” (72) Of machines he says: “The only things alive are machines and slaves – and the former are more alive than the latter.” (72) Then the image of the Tower of Babel is very moving and resonant.  How apposite and observant is his comment on the fact that they all knew the word for “bricks” in many languages – what a sad fact!

These are enough comments for one night.  It’s now 1:10 A.M. and it’s time for bed.  I welcome a restful night enlivened by dreams bringing many symbols from my unconscious to my conscious mind.  I bid them welcome as I strive to get to know myself in this our brittle if beautiful world.  Amen!
The above is a picture I took of a famous sculpture of the worker inmates at Dachau concentration camp which we visited in December 2005.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Apt Words 2

Primo Levi’s insights into Hell

I am still reading Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, and once again I am moved by the precision, pace and tone of his prose.  I feel as if I’m reading a poem, a very disturbing poem.  All good literature must move the reader, and this is good literature and it moves me deeply.  

I have read a lot about concentration camps over the years, my first book being that very famous one by Lord Russell of Liverpool called so pointedly The Scourge of the Swastika.  I read it in my late teens – when I was 16 or 17.  It disturbed me greatly at the time.  I purchased that book shortly after I had viewed practically all episodes of that famous 1970s war documentary The World at War.  That book and that series always haunted me by the depth of suffering inflicted on many innocent people by opposing warring factions or nations.  The occasional stills – the black and white photos – of people before they were gunned down and kicked brutally into the dark maw of huge graves were haunting.  The look in their eyes captured by the cameramen is truly moving and beyond expression in my poor fumbling words.   In fact I always felt the tears well up in my eyes even at the sound of the music which introduced The World at War.  I must find out the name of that piece and who composed it.  I wonder was it composed specially.

But to return to Primo Levi - I am transfixed by his use of language.  As we were taught at school and college – a master writer possesses an inevitability of language or diction.  Every word seems to be weighed out.  There is absolutely no padding.  The style is spare, grim, sparse and economic and consequently so apt.  How could a style that sought to describe hell or earth not be such?  I loved this description of himself being released from the so called infirmary Ka-Be: “But the man who leaves the Ka-Be, naked and almost always insufficiently cured, feels himself ejected into the dark and cold of sidereal space.”(p.56) “Sidereal” space sounds infinitely more lonely and moving than just the simple noun “space” on its own. He speaks also about the many “weapons of the night,” (p.57) and further of the inmates’ recurrent and haunting nightmares – telling their stories to their loved ones only to have them walk away without saying a word.  Then he tells us that they all had similar dreams.  Another collective dream was that of seeing food and being about to eat it only to have it disappear just as they are about to bite into it.  Then those awful, torturing processions – lining up for everything, even to go to the communal bucket at night, the smells, the torture of it, the cramped beds, the jostling to get food, even to get a bit of space on one’s so-called bed or bunk which one had to share with another.

Levi describes how sleep, fitful, uncomfortable and nightmare –ridden as it was, was infinitely superior to the hell that was waking up.  As a person who has suffered from bouts of depression I can in some miniscule way associate with the pain of waking up to the world – and that is our present heaven of a world, not Levi’s nightmare one.  These words move me:  “…the illusory barrier of the warm blankets, the thin armour of sleep, the nightly evasion with its very torments drops to pieces around us, and we find ourselves mercilessly awake, exposed to insult, atrociously naked and vulnerable.” (p. 63) What a description of waking up – how can anyone say anymore?  Or how about these for the last few lines of a chapter? – “When I have remade my bed and am dressed, I climb down onto the floor and put on my shoes.  The sores on my feet reopen at once, and a new day begins.” (p. 64)

Enough said.  More than enough written.
A picture I took at Dachau, December 2005, with its infamous Nazi inscription which needs no translation!

More Apt Words

Primo Levi’s sad words:

I hit upon some bargains recently in Hodges Figgis, a brilliant Dublin book shop, one of which is Survival in Auschwitz, by the Italian Jew, Primo Levi.  I have always liked Levi’s books – especially his succinct, objective, dispassionate style.  I marvelled and still marvel at how dispassionate his voice is as he recounts how he was taken away to the concentration camp.  Take these two sentences that I find very moving:  “There are few men who know how to go to their deaths with dignity, and often they are not those whom one would expect.  Few know how to remain silent and respect the silence of others.” (p. 18) Then when the prisoners had been “processed” i.e., sorted into those fit for work and those suitable only to be exterminated immediately, stripped naked, shorn like sheep of every hair on their bodies, given rags and broken down shoes to wear, insulted, bruised and beaten by guards, insulted and spat upon, then we get this powerful and disturbing sentence: “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” (p.26) The book then goes on and on drawing the reader into this hell created by the Nazis.  It is beautifully written - to say that an account of surviving in Auschwitz is beautifully written is in itself a travesty of language – how can words that capture such depravity and degeneracy be beautiful?  I am captivated and ensnared by this book.

But the phrase the keeps coming into my mind over and over again like a mantra is the phrase “the demolition of man.”  What a wonderfully sad phrase.  I have been trained for years as a teacher both at college and over years of experience to “build up” those human beings that I have the privilege to teach.  Teaching for me is one of the most profoundly important professions – I would even say vocation – which we have in human society.  The other would be medicine to my mind.  Then all the other caring professions come after that.  

The biggest thrill and satisfaction a teacher can get is seeing his students reach their potential whatever that may be for them – doing as well as they possibly can academically, personally and socially.  Then there are the pupils who come to you for advice, others that come to you with their problems and those that come to thank you for some perceived favour which you had never noticed that you did.   For me working closely with committees on the putting together of a school Year Book is always exhilarating.  Working with pupils on other committees – graduation, work experience, community placement, cookery etc allows one into the wonderfully hopeful, though at times disturbing and frightening, world of the modern adolescent.  These enriching experiences cannot be overvalued.  No money would pay you for the satisfaction you get from a parent thanking for what you did for their son, or two young graduands wanting their photographs taken with the teacher.

Now to oppose to that the “demolition of man”, the systematic taking apart of an individual, taking away a person’s dignity and humanity, is to my mind unreal.  And yet it was and is real for many who live on this planet earth.  I can hear my mother say, “You would not treat an old dog or an old cat that way!”  

So many feelings are welling up in me – anger, disbelief, dismay, and dejection, a feeling of sickness, despondency and so on and on. Also so many thoughts and questions are rushing through my mind – why? Were they criminally insane? Were they deluded?  Were they just following orders?  Where were their morals or ethics?  How could so many apparently good people be intoxicated by the propaganda and utopian promises of a mad man?  How could they have subscribed to the vitriol and sheer hatred of races such as the Jews?  How could they have believed in hegemony and genocide?  Where were the Churches in all this – those official representatives of Jesus on earth?  Where were they?  I know there were many brave clerics who spoke out against Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, but none from officialdom!  

The dignity of man resides in life, in dying and in death.  This is what we have been taught and what we civilized people must go on teaching.  Let us speak about the “building up” and edification of humankind.  As Pope Paul VI said to the UN when he addressed it in the mid sixties of the last century:  “No more war, war no more!”  This is a good slogan or sluaghairm (The Gaelic word from which slogan derives) – the words that call us all together!!!  Let us build peace here and now in our own lives, amongst all those whom it is our privilege to come in contact with.  Another slogan I like is one from Winston Churchill:  “Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war.”

I have appended above a picture of a torture table, complete with whip, which I took last December at Dachau, a camp not nearly as infamous as Auschwitz where Primo Levi spent his time.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Meditation 3

The Body-Mind or Mind-Body Continuum

As always I seem to be reading two or three books at a time, but that is okay because they are not novels, so there are no intricate plots to follow.  My type of reading is in autobiography, biography, self-help, popular psychology, mainstream psychology, philosophy, science and literature – all generally books that you can dip into.

At the moment I have two travel books next to me as I write, namely Sailing for Home by Theo Dorgan and Himalaya by Michael Palin.  They are travel books at one level – physical travel that is, but they are also books recounting deeper journeys.  The first certainly fits into this latter category to a greater extent, the second to a somewhat lesser, though no less rewarding one at a spiritual level.

I have also been reading Going on Being by Mark Epstein M.D., a book on Buddhist psychology for the West and a beautiful book with a riveting title, The Art of Effortless Living by Ingrid Bacci, Ph.D.  Both wonderfully enlightening and healing books.
As I write I’m listening to the pained voice of Kurt Cobain singing what is a quite a listenable and moving number called “My Girl” from Unplugged in New York.  That’s what I like about my iTunes Player on my P.C. - the “Party Shuffle” throws up surprises, pieces I have never listened to before from all the music I have copied, some randomly and some purposefully, to my computer.

Facing the pain, that’s what’s important, not avoiding it.  That’s the lesson from the books I’ve been reading.  Avoidance is a sure way to bring problems down on your head, if not now, then certainly at some time in the near future.  Face the shadow within, face all the stuff that your dreams throw up, face any and all the issues meditation offers for your consideration.  Be aware of how your body is carrying the issues that you are dealing with – this is also very significant.  Bacci is at one with Dr Eugene Gendlin, he of Focusing fame, as regards the fact that our bodies carry our emotional wounds, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, those we’re aware of and those of which we are unaware.  Hence paying attention to or listening to the body is one of the most important things we can do in our lives.  My body is ageing, getting gradually less supple, yet also there is a lingering tiredness (though not exhaustion) which I feel on an ongoing basis which I attribute to the medication I have to take – three tablets for high blood pressure and one for endogenous depression.  This feeling is infinitely preferable for me to that horrible feeling of agitation, inability to concentrate, to think straight or even to sleep restfully.  

Another deep conviction I’ve acquired over the past few years is a new appreciation of my body.  As we grew up as children it was as if society and church had been indoctrinating us with this slogan: “Spirit /Soul good, body bad” (Church), “Mind (intellect) good, body less good” (State).  I suppose it’s no surprise that one becomes more aware of one’s body as one grows older, simply because like anything in this world it begins to break down or decay.   Hence it begins to make itself felt in no small measure.  Culture seems to point to all the more creative and spiritual aspects as being the more important – language, literature, music, art in all its many guises – in short, that is culture in all its manifestations.  Yet as one gets older sometimes this spiritualising and transcendentalising (if you will suffer my neologism) of life robs it of a certain lived reality, of a certain experiential aspect for which the body is a necessary prerequisite.

However, it appears to me that the only way to get over this Cartesian Dualism and the older and more destructive Manichean morality inherited from Christianity is to realise the intimate relationship between Body and Spirit, to see them as a unity or a continuum.  I really don’t see at all how one can have one without the other.   It makes more sense to me to talk about the Body-Mind or the Mind-Body Continuum.

What I avoid and deny on an emotional level has consequences for my body and what I experience and suffer on a physical level has an impact on my emotional, psychic and spiritual level.  I can only deny one at the expense of the other

The picture above is once again one I took at Delphi this year, March 2006.

Uncensored Thoughts Stream On, Dream On!

Stream of Consciousness:

These mountains of the west, these rocks and stones and car wheels over gravel and even the soft rain comfort me no end.  Yes, there will be an end – as all things break down, burn out as the Second Law of Thermodynamics proclaims.  All will be consumed away and what will be the significance of these scribbles then?

Snow-capped mountains and hills and valleys and lakes and all things small and tall, and here in my soul is where it all happens, and I’ll write to reach the centre, and be re-centred and re-centred and ever re-centred.  My heart breaks, melts, thaws, and opens itself to the mountains, the trees, bare with winter truth, a bitter fruit.  My heart grows, explodes, opens its arms wider and wider and will embrace all in a summer truth of blossom upon blossom upon blossom.  I ache for stony places – ageless rocks, sheer cliff, for shingle under foot, for the long lost strands of youth and for the sand that tickles the toes, for ancient slopes, for valleys, for snow-capped mountains, for trees climbing jagged slopes, for the crack and snap of tree limbs breaking, for houses nestling among the trees sheltering from the wind, for the shadows of mountains on mountains, for spring promise, for girlish giggles and for the brash shouts of boys, for old bridges that cross streams, for roads that twist between lakes, for a sun that searches out the cold corners, for rain that falls soft and gentle, for rain that lashes on panes of glass, for a primordial silence, the womb of life, for a silence that comforts like a blanket and that catches me safe in a harness of protection, for a wind that shakes and breaks and destroys as well as refreshes this beautifully various valley of life.  I long for mountains I could never hope to sketch except in words, poor substitute for image.

Now this mess of thought after sleep and this riot of the unconscious and the rain still beating the glass panes and me wondering about who or what I am about.  Am I just shivering in the primordial slime from where we came and the semen and the sputum and the stuff of life and the vaginal fluids on my thigh and me rubbing her pubes and feeling her tits and dreaming of what or rather who could be if we were to solemnise our unity in birth?  Deep, I say, down where thoughts grow in primordial slime, beyond the tramp’s spit and yellowed sputum under an old bed and the smell of decaying vegetation; beyond the sputum and suppuration and puss that oozes from old sores and a splinter under the skin the sunshine breaks through and enlivens, brings life from seeds.  Somewhere, some time there will be something that will surprise us, take us unawares like a sudden shower on a summer’s day.

Bird song and cold stone and winter ways in spring and bird song again, and voices carrying through the trees and I attempting to enter a still space, a place of stillness, a place of peace.  I’m still trying to plumb the depths of soul, trying to put some shape on the shapeless, still trying to be really me, still trying to find out what is true and what is false, needing to say things twice or more like a mantra to bring me deeper, deeper to stonier places, to deeper story places, to places where stories begin.  Crouching in the heather, cold on damp rock, solid ground around and voices still carrying where the birds sing and chirp.  Let me be true to self, true to me, unafraid to be, unafraid to speak my truth.  Let me go beyond abstractions, let me go beyond the so-called Truth with capital letters.  Let me go further on through the mists, up through the stony places with no traces of direction, past old fallen branches, dampness, heather, moss and wild flowers and bare limbed trees.  Let the lens of my truth be my honesty, my ability to face myself all in all as I am with all my legions of weaknesses.  What is my truth but my very breathing, my very breath, the taste on my tongue, my bowels rumbling, piss and shit, hit and miss, come and go, in and out, up and down and around and around – cycles upon cycles searching out other cycles.  We cannot square the circle or circle the square.  It’s the cult of experience now – back to the self, into the deep down ever deeper self – deeper creeper, seeper, peeper and leaper from rock to rock.  Sometime, somewhere some ooze of self will meet an ooze of another and we will beget another consciousness.
A frog at Delphi, Co Mayo, where I wrote this stream of consciousness one morning in March 2005.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Meditation 2

Meditation 2

All paths lead homeward…eventually

It is only some days now since many unknown others and I packed the Mahony Hall in the Helix Theatre at DCU to listen to the famous Tibetan Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche address us on Buddhism.  What a ray of hope is such teaching!  What a still point in the heart of the throbbing city!  Great to see so many people of all ages and of all backgrounds there to sit at the master’s feet.  Sogyal Rinpoche is well known as a gifted international speaker on Tibetan Buddhism and is the author of the bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – a classic which has sold millions worldwide.  John Cleese has described this book thus: “One of the most helpful books I have ever read.”  I like this comment, made by one of the greatest comics, actors and entertainers of the last half century and praise from the creator of Monty Python is praise indeed.  Rinpoche (pronounced Rin-poh-shay) has a great sense of humour himself and kept his audience enthralled for two hours.

Well, what did this master tell us?  Firstly let me share with you just one quotation from his masterpiece:  “Our society is obsessed with youth, sex, and power, and we shun old age and decay.  Isn’t it terrifying that we discard old people when their working life is finished and they are no longer useful?  Isn’t it disturbing that we cast them into old people’s homes, where they die lonely and abandoned?”(Rider edition, 1992, p.9).

Firstly, his address was entitled “Awakening the Mind, Opening the Heart”, itself a very good description of Buddhist practice.  This master told us that there were two kinds of happiness – the happiness of the senses and the happiness of the mind.  The first of these two can be very expensive indeed insofar as we might think that happiness lies in amassing the various material items of the world, while the second is inexpensive monetarily.  In what could have been termed a Tibetan retake on St Augustine, Sogyal Rinpoche told us:  “Only the fooling go looking for happiness outside themselves.”

Then he quoted his spiritual and national leader the Dalai Lama:  “My religion is very simple.  My religion is loving kindness.” When Tibetans greet each other they say, “How is your loving heart today?” If anyone has a lack of the “good heart” or of kindness or of compassion, then they are lacking in self-esteem also.

Samsara, according to Rinpoche is a vicious circle created by 1) negative emotions and 2) negative actions.  People rush around wanting happiness, yet doing everything that does not bring it about.

Karma, Everything has a cause and an effect.  This is why Buddhists cannot accept the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.  When you harm others it comes back to you.  This reminds me of our own Irish proverb or seanfhocal: “Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire”- “The evil deed returns to the evil-doer.” This is karma indeed.  When you help others, you help yourself in fact.  This is no mere altruism.  You not alone feel better, but you become better by helping others.

Taming/transforming/conquering: Buddhism is all about these three synonyms – that is, it’s all about taming the mind.  The mind is the root of everything.  It is the creator of Samsara and also the creator of Nirvana.

Samsara is the mind turned outwards, lost in its projections on the world out there.  Nirvana is the mind turned inwards, recognising its own true nature.  The mind can be compared to the sun.  The essence or nature of the mind or the fundamental mind can be likened to the sun itself, while our thoughts and emotions are appearances that can be likened to the rays of the sun.

“Don’t seek to cut the root of phenomena, but cut the root of the mind” is old Buddhist saying which can be translated into modern language as: “Don’t investigate the roots of your thoughts and your feelings, go investigate the root of your mind!”

“Don’t just keep the elephant at home and look for its footprints in the forest!”

Meditation is bringing the mind home, settling the mind.

“Are you worried about death and dying?  Don’t.  I promise you we will all die successfully!”  (Laughter)

“Death is meeting your own truth!” “Death and dying are the heart and soul of all spiritual practice.”

“Learn to die and therefore learn how to live!”

“Dying is like changing your clothes.” The Dalai Lama.
“Remembering death brings you home.”

“Every religion teaches: Love, don’t grasp!”

“Grasping is fear – you’re insecure!”

There is an old Tibetan saying which is a teaching about the nature mind or about the fundamental mind and it goes thus:  “Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear!”  In the same manner the mind will become clear if it is stilled!”

In Tibetan the word for worry means “mind sickness.”

Our true self is the nature mind.

We don’t spend enough time with ourselves.

“Leave your mind alone.  Leave it in peace!”

“Learn to ride the mind as you would a bike.”

“Happiness without reason is real happiness.”

“The biggest problems in the West are Speed and Aggression.”

“In Tibetan “Thank you” can be translated as “Your mind is great or magnanimous!”
The above picture is an image of the Tibetan Master Sogyal Rinpoche who gave a talk called "Awakening the Mind, Opening the Heart" in The Mahony Hall, The Helix, DCU, Dublin, on Thursday 22 June 2006.

Meditation 1

A Meditative Interlude

Sunday morning and a sort of emptiness inside.  Needing to meditate, needing to fill the vacuum, needing spiritual not religious sustenance.  Tired of all the easy answers trotted out by all, tired of the noise of modern society, tired of the boasting of big egos and the lies of this society.  Needing comfort, needing companionship, needing intimacy; missing the companionship of Ann, missing her son Colin; feeling their rejection still I write to find some consolation.

When I meditate I enter the still world of soul, the still point of being deep within, that powerful and potent platform of awareness and observation – of being aware, of being awake.  Sometimes the tears flow as the power of compassion overwhelms my soul, when I am connected with every living and sentient being in this world.  Little speck of consciousness that I am, I am connected mystically and wonderfully with every other little speck of consciousness.   Little speck of consciousness that I am, I am moved by the suffering and pain of self and others, of others and self.

Look upon this world with great compassion, that’s what we must do.  Look with the eyes of compassion, that’s the only way.  Life is so short.  I wonder what I have achieved at all up to this point in my life.  I wonder where my path leads me.  I wonder where I will end up at all.  I feel deeply that I have a task to do other than the profession that I am following at the moment.  This I share with the subject of my STL thesis, namely John Henry Newman who, when he was sick in Sicily, believed that he would not die because the Lord of his life had a work for him to do.  I want to be open to the potential of my dreams, to be deeply enchanted with the wonder of my being, with the wonder of the being of every other sentient creature with whom I come in contact.

Let me go now and focus through meditation – focus on pulling the bedraggled and entangled threads of my being into some sort of strong chord of being, into some consistent and strong and fibrous rope of being.  These lines are my prayer; these lines are my hope; these lines are the warp and woof of my existence.  Long may I write them and long may they lead me to the truth of my being.  Amen, amen and amen again.  My soul sings and must sing or else I’m dead.

Practice Makes Perfect!

“Writer, Practise Your Craft!”  W.B. Yeats

And yes, that’s what their advice is – keep writing.  That’s the way to break through.  Automatic writing, that’s what Yeats called it; stream of consciousness was what Joyce called it.  Morning Pages what Julia Cameron calls it.  Entirely the same thing of course.  I love writing – I’m addicted to it and wish I could be so much better at it.  Yeats’ advice went something like this:  “Writer, practise your craft.”  Yes, we’ve all heard that old chestnut of advice – “practice makes perfect!”

Where to start?  No easy thing, yet one can start anywhere in drawing a circle and still end up with the one and the same circle.  So true.  And writing is a sure way to express the soul.  For me it is my main way.  I love to see words form themselves upon the page.  Anthony Burgess spoke of the attempt to make words behave.  They are rather like an unruly bunch of conscripts who must be beaten into shape to enable them eventually to enter the fray, to take up battle with the enemy.  The writer is the drill sergeant who must whip them into shape, get them battle-worthy.  No easy task this!  

And I write also to ease the pain, a pain that is almost indescribable.  I am almost loath to use the word “pain” because it is such a loaded word.  I am really referring here to the human condition, to our finitude, to our fragility, to our being incomplete, unsatisfied and yearning creatures.  We are creatures pointed at an unknown future.  We often face this future with trepidation and fear.  And yet we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

We are complex beings.  I am a complex being.  Things are only becoming clearer for me as I get older and work hard at making sense of the life I have been given by God- only-knows what power or force or drive to life that exists in this wonderful if at times tragically painful world we live in.  I write also to find a way to express my feelings, a way to reach out to a focused eye that may read these words or a listening ear that may hear them read.  I read and I write, I write and I read and hopefully I will become a better writer by virtue of my practice.

I love reading and hearing the stories of others.  That way I am open to the life experiences and the enriching insights of others.  This helps me on my journey through this wonderful if at times painful world.  I love the fact that sometimes I have been instrumental in helping others to become more themselves, to develop their potential.  Like the ganglions of the brain that reach from neuron to neuron in an infinity of possible connections, so also we reach out to all others with whom we come in contact and they to us.

Listen to the inner self.  Listen to the heart and soul.  Be open to the spirit.  Reclaim and look after the child within, take time to nurture the inner being.  Give your attention to your body and your soul, or give your attention to that complex mystery we may call the body-mind or the mind-body – have it as you will!  It is a unity, a oneness of being.  Gone forever is the Cartesian dualism that wished to separate them out, disentangle the very threads of life.  We are no spiritual prisoner within the machine of the body.  My body and my soul or spirit is inseparably that unity I dare call me!!!!

What's in a word?

What’s in a word?

This is a simple playing with words.  I enjoy such a game because it is a gentle pursuit, one I can do undisturbed.  It is tantamount to a meditation really, done slowly and freely and with awareness.  Writing is a special gift that so often surprises, as I never really know what I’m going to end up writing.  I love the effort of making words behave upon the page.   I sit and relax after a long day at work and watch, ready to be surprised at what will turn up.  Joyce called it “stream of consciousness.”  I call it playing with the imagination, letting it roam where it will, not having it strain at the leash.  Allow the imagination or fancy to flee like a dog just unleashed.  Let it roll in the grass, run free as the wind, bark till it gets hoarse, come back to its owner looking for attention.  This is where everything becomes exciting as something new is created, as images jump into the mind, and out of it just as quickly.  I love letting words tumble off my tongue like young boys diving into the harbour off the pier, going down to the depths and then re-emerging to breathe anew and thread water, and then to look at the coastline with different eyes.  This is my diving down.  This is my plumbing of the depths.  This is my encountering my demons.  This is my journey into the self and into awareness.  This is my attempt to listen to the music of the soul and be bewitched and enchanted.  And what a music that is.  It is one of depth and height.  It is one associated with the high cliffs and the deep seas of the Unconscious.  It is a mystical music, a haunting music, one that makes the hairs stand up on my neck; one that makes a shiver run down my spine.  It’s like falling in love raised to the nth degree.  It is walking on holy ground and you have to take off both your socks and shoes to feel the very sinews of the earth.  This is a pilgrimage into the darker caverns of the self; a journey into the labyrinths of self-knowledge.  It is a journey I can only choose to ignore at my peril.

“Go west, young man.” This was the call to the old American pioneers to set out to find their fortune in a new Promised Land of the virgin continent of North America.  And the westward journey into the setting sun was for many a deadly and death-filled journey.  Whatever about the Old West, the west coast of Ireland is a bleak and beautiful coastline comprising the sheer fall to sea of the Cliffs of Moher and the beauty of Clew Bay with its many, many islands.  The very music of the people seems to inhabit those cliffs, that sea and those islands.  I can hear the haunting pipe music of “ceol na bpúcaí” rising into the evening sky over Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry.  I can hear the strains of “Trasna na dTonnta” dancing on the waves and breaking in on the strands of Connemara, and the cadences of “Tonnaí Thoraí” calling from the North West of Donegal.

These are the sounds that words conjure up - sounds from the very landscape, the seascape, the mountainscape of my mind.  This is surely what Gerard Manley Hopkins meant by inscape.  Then, of course, there is escape.  Escape from all the problems or would-be problems that surround me in this world where we brush off each other and hope to help make it a better place for all of us to live.  And why write?  Why have this urge to set down these fleeting thoughts?  Why climb a mountain?  Why swim in the sea?  Why conquer the North and South Poles?  Why set foot on the moon?  Why travel into space?  Why?  For the simple reason that they are all there.  They are simply there.  I am there.  My thoughts are there.  Some day they won’t.  Someday I won’t either, but that will make no difference to anyone, not even to me.  Until then I will write these words lovely and lithe and slippery upon this page.  They are a witness to my existence - little ant on this giant anthill we call earth.

De profundis

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine:Domine, exaudi vocem meam:  (Psalm 129)

I write to chase away my demons and to allure my angels into the net of my imagination.  My love affair with words is as complex as the love affairs of my life.  As I have not been feeling too well of late, I am finding it harder to write; harder to concentrate; harder to make sense of what’s happening to my body and to my mind; harder to keep going; harder as T.S. Eliot put it “to prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet”; harder to keep my enthusiasm for the big and small things of my daily existence; harder to be patient with what we call the human condition.

My existence has been a love affair with words, with beautiful words, those ciphers of meaning and significance.  How could I live without them?  How could I live without the magic and wonder of their spell?  Yet, many do live without the sustenance of those beautiful written symbols shaping themselves on the screen of my laptop - the deaf, the dumb, the deaf blind.  And yet, mystery of mysteries, victory of victories, the great Helen Keller managed to take a degree by learning solely through the sense of touch.

Words, you ciphers that sketch the heights and depths of my heart, friends of my solitary moments, I need you now to help me to surface from the slough of despond; from the fog that falls all too soon; from this sense of impending isolation; from this prison whose walls enclose, confine and constrict both body and mind; from all that reduces my independence; from all that diminishes me.

My words belong to a universe beyond my ken. They inhabit infinite spaces; heights and depths that I can barely comprehend; oceans I can barely swim in for all too short a time; rivers that teem with the salmon spawn of knowledge; mountains that take my breath away and tire my aching limbs; walks that invite me ever onward to unknown destinations; heavens, hells and purgatories of my own making and some few not mine.

My words belong to three tongues – English, Gaeilge and Italian – the three linguistic loves of my life.  I am listening to the beautiful voice of Andrea Bocelli as I type.  His voice lifts my heart and brings tears to my eyes.  Blind tenor who never saw the written word, never saw the cipher encoded on the page, and yet, what greater joy its sound on the living ear, enlivened by human strings of voice.  Let us rejoice in such luscious sound. In such harmony let meaning abound.  I need such sound around to lift my jaded spirit.  I need such sound to confound the fog that falls.  I need such sound to give me sure footing and a little ground.

When we go down to the depths we need something beautiful to lift us up even a little; something to give us even a small kick-start; something to act as a springboard or a diving board from which we can at least push off.  It is so much easier to light a candle than to scorn the dark.  And now as the dark seems to be coming down so inevitably like a little death needling me back to live again under a broader, though not cloudless, sky, I grasp at whatever straws I can.  I grasp at the straws of meaning in the odd stray lines of poetry; in the sound of a lyric that lifts the heart; in the beauty of a painting; in the love in the eyes of a small innocent child; in the incongruity and contradiction of daily living; in the one behind the many; in the greater picture when you move ever further back to gain perspective; in the words of praise handed my way; in the smile of another face; in the magnificence of difference; in a word of thanks really meant; in the significance of a little human touch.

Even if we hit rock bottom, we must believe for our own sanity that it is just like the bottom of a deep swimming pool.  We must believe that all that is necessary is that we kick off from the bottom in the knowledge that we will soon surface; in the knowledge that there is light at the end of the tunnel; in the knowledge that the darkest moment is often before the dawn; in the knowledge that the small birds of hope are seeking out and finding the odd worm in the garden of our souls.  I need these words as the birds their seeds.  I need these words as the body needs its food.  I need these words as my lungs need air or my heart blood or my mind oxygen.  I need these words of hope to sing songs, all types of songs as the need arises.  I need these shapes, these symbols, these ciphers to help me through.  I need to feel I’m making sense of this life I’ve been given, rich in its variety and short in its duration.  Let me make the best of it for me, for those I love and for all who may come in contact with this earthly bundle of joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams that I am.           

The above painting is one by El Greco of St Francis in prayer