Sunday, December 30, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years 3

Putting The Jigsaw Together

I remember many years ago attending a dynamic group workshop loosely based around a spirituality/self-development theme.  Initially we were broken into groups by the facilitators as is the way with such workshops and asked firstly to come up with a name for our individual groups.  This proved to be a very interesting exercise indeed.  As far as I recall from this distance in time our group called itself "The Searchers."  Another called itself "The Explorers", another "The Pilgrims" while still another called itself "The Sunflowers."  There were at least seven or so groups - I've forgotten the other names.  The ensuing discussion/open forum about this exercise revealed a lot.  The word "Searchers" seemed to imply a task, indeed hard work while at the same time it implied something of value or someone being lost.  "Explorers" suggested something freer and more liberating, a freedom to find anything one wished on the landscape being explored and, I suppose, many different possible routes to get anywhere or somewhere on the journey.  "Pilgrims" obviously carried many deep religious and spiritual resonances - one is reminded of such medieval pilgrimages as that to Canterbury as we have recounted for us in The Canterbury Tales  by Chaucer or that still famous camino to Santiago de Compostela which modern pilgrims still make right up to this day.  We Irish may be reminded of other more Celtic pilgrimages to the top of Cruach Phádraig or Croke Patrick in Co. Mayo or possibly St Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. Anyway, such pilgrimages require renunciation of self - so the work "Pilgrims" suggested something ascetic, forbidding, self-denying and somehow weighed down with centuries of religious struggle through sin and guilt - at least to me at the time and still now today.  Anyway, the discussion around the chosen group title "The Sunflowers" was very liberating indeed.  This group saw themselves as responding to a source of power, a source of energy, a source of enlightenment outside themselves.  Also they were moving in response to this outside power or force or energy.    While there may be a passivity of approach to this spiritual view of life, yet there was something refreshing in it also.  Nor was it totally indolent or lazy in approach - after all there was growth and movement (the flower head turns to follow the sun) involved and this requires a receptivity to light and water and a working with these sources of energy to grow.

Perhaps, in a way there is some of all these possible designations in all of us - we are at one and the same time searchers, explorers, pilgrims and sunflowers.  Maybe there are other possible names we could give our human quest for meaning in this world - perhaps "Divers for Pearls," "Climbers" or "Voyagers" or "Eternal Students."  I don't think any group would set itself up as "Guides" or "Pilots" or "Leaders" or "Mystics" or "Gurus" or would they.  At least, we had no such designated groups.  Perhaps we were all too humble.

I have alluded in these pages many times to the growing anger in society and especially among our younger adults.  We only have to read the papers and listen to the daily news on any TV channel to be aware of this if we have not been unlucky enough to have encountered such anger or violence in our own lives.  There is obviously a lack of constraints on people in today's society.  Why?  Well, my friends and I believe that as regards Ireland in the past twenty years the strangle hold of the Church is decidedly gone.  When we were growing up the Church still had power over us youngsters as there were still enough religious in our schools and parishes to preach and enforce these rules.  The Church had a moral authority and a consequent fairly effective moral control of its people.  Those times were indeed authoritarian and perhaps we were far too obedient and dependent. However, in a poor, underdeveloped and practically rural or provincial country not much short of dependence was possible.

The Church today in Ireland is an emasculated wreck of itself in terms of what it was from the fifties through to the eighties of the last century.  Now it is one voice among many alternatives.  This is no bad thing indeed as it means that people have a wider freedom of choice in their lives.  However, it also unfortunately means that the experience of wide choices means that many find themselves existentially cut adrift on a veritable sea of confusion.  Add into all of that the drug culture of Ecstasy tablets and the modern addiction to Cocaine coupled with that all-pervasive traditional addiction to alcohol and one gets an explosive mixture. 

As a secondary teacher of some 28 years experience in an inner city school in Dublin I find that there is a growing minority of young males who have never had a significant other adult male influence in their lives and this is a major cause of concern.  These kids are ripe for exploitation by all possible sources - from aggressive advertising to drug pushing and all the consequent disharmony or even aggression and/or violence that may ensue.

How do we try to improve this situation with all its concomitant woes? Well, I suppose outside religious gurus and organizations like the great The Elders alluded to in the last post, there exist all the helping professions like Doctors, Nurses, Police Officers, Fire Officers, Ambulance Crews, Teachers, Special Needs Assistants, Care Workers etc who seek to bring a little healing to this broken world.  Beyond these helping professions there are legions of charitable organizations from the Samaritans and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to the Simon Community, most of whose workers bring love and care to others without any payment besides the pleasure and privilege of doing charitable acts.  I myself am inspired by and drawn to the Counselling/psychotherapeutic profession which deals with the healing of the human soul.  Perhaps with a change in career in the offing I will be further drawn in that direction. 

Recently I have been reading the books of a favourite psychiatrist and psychotherapist called Irvin Yalom - whose books I have listed among my favourites in the column on the right of this blog.  He gave a wonderful speech on being awarded the Oscar Pfister prize (for important contributions to religion and psychiatry) in the year 2000 by The American Psychiatric Association. Yalom writes like an angel even though he is a self-professed atheist like Sigmund Freud before him, but he agreed to accept this award because of certain convergences between religious and spiritual goals and those of psychiatry/psychotherapy.  In fact he states that Sigmund Freud is one of his heroes. I'll quote a little here from his wonderful acceptance speech.

"I'll also sketch out some comparisons between existential psychotherapy and religious consolation. I believe these two approaches have a complex, strained relationship. In a sense, they are cousins with the same ancestors and concerns: they share the common mission of ministering to the intrinsic despair of the human condition. Sometimes they share common methods – the one to one relationship, the mode of confession, of inner scrutiny, of forgiveness of others and self. In fact, more and more as I've grown older, I consider psychotherapy as a calling, not as a profession. And yet, still, it is true that the core beliefs and basic practical approaches of psychotherapy and religious consolation are often antipodal."

I have deliberately highlighted one sentence in bold italics above because this, while overtly and patently a negative sentence, contains considerable realism and a not a little truth.  I am reminded of the words of the contemporary famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking which I am paraphrasing here because I cannot remember the exact words:  "There's no use bemoaning our station in  life or our state of health because life is all a matter of luck.  You accept the hand of cards you are given and play the best game you can with that!"  There's a lot of realism, common sense or wisdom in that indeed, and this from a great mind locked in a body crippled with motor neurone disease.  However, look at the imaginative and intellectual heights to which the genius Stephen Hawking soared.  All limitations can be transcended in many significant ways if only we have the vision to see it. 

Acceptance to my mind must always precede understanding.  This acceptance then leads to an openness to welcoming help or procuring help or developing coping skills.  Being able to learn how to cope with whatever life throws at us is the most essential way to doing something about (note that I did not say solving) whatever problem is besetting us. Yalom, again in this talk and passim in his books has this to say about existential therapy, which has these four points in common with all religions (Yalom has read the liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich  and refers to his category of "ultimate concerns.") which I feel is worth quoting here:

"Four ultimate concerns, to my view, are highly germane to psychotherapy: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. These four themes form the spine of my textbook and I shall elaborate upon them as I proceed today."

I loved this speech as I loved those of Yalom's books which I have read because they are so rooted in the very "stuff" of life - real existence with its all-too-real problems.  Don't read Yalom if you cannot face life and death head on.  To read him is akin to reading the wonderful spiritual classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the equally wonderful human being and spiritual master Sogyal Rinpoche.  When you read either of them you are left with the thought and the feeling - we're all in this boat ( = life) together; there's no getting out of it alive; the wisest person will perish like the dumbest; not one single soul is immune to it's tragedies.  As well as that you get the thought and the feeling that there is someone there who can help me; there is someone there who has some grasp on reality; there is someone there who has developed ways of coping with the existential problems life throws at us all too frequently.  And that someone can be another person or indeed even myself or both! Acceptance as I've said must come before understanding.  This acceptance will lead to openness and to a humility to learn to accept help and to give it when called upon.

Above I have enumerated the problems that beset modern humankind.  Perhaps there is little any of us can do about the real problems of the world on a global level or even about the real problems of our own country or city or town at a micro level.  However, there is much I can do on a personal level to get to know myself; to work on improving my strengths and decreasing my weaknesses; to care for my Self on a spiritual or psychological level; to develop coping skills to handle my own problems.  We will find that once we really begin to care for our inner being or Self that it's then that we are liberated most especially to care for others; to offer others real and practical and useful help in living with and coping with, and hopefully transforming, what I think and feel that Yalom expresses realistically, if a little too pessimistically above as "the intrinsic despair of the human condition."

Above I have placed a picture I took of St Cronin's Church, Roscrea where I was baptized in 1958. It is a splendid architectural feat!

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