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.