Saturday, December 22, 2007

Still Point - The Centre Holds!

For this post, I will begin with some lines from the Tao Te Ching. Stanza 9 is worth quoting in full and runs thus:

Fill your bowl to the brim
And it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
And it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

There is much wisdom in the above quoted lines. We are peculiar creatures who are literally tormented by our infinite desires. Enough is not enough at all. The more we have, the more we want. The more we get, the more still we want. We are vice-ridden and desire-tormented. No wonder the Christian tradition talks about the seven deadly sins. Interpreted literally these sins brought in their eventual trail hellfire and damnation. Metaphorically, though, they plumb the depths of our seemingly unquenchable desires. Listed in Latin by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD and later (also in Latin) by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy the seven deadly sins are as follows: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride).

We are animals at base, of course, and we are pretty much instinctual creatures like our fellows of other species in the animal kingdom. Hence the sexual urge or desire is one of the strongest basic urges or instincts within us. Hence Lust, which is uncurbed by the mores of society or the rules and regulations of the Church, is deemed to be a deadly sin leading the believer to hellfire and damnation. Likewise with Gluttony. We cannot get enough of a good thing such as good food and wine – here we are prone to both drink and eat to excess. There, then follows Greed which would seem to be the very basis of Western economy. We cannot seem to get enough money. Then follow in quick succession the vices of Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. Sloth is not just simple indolence or laziness – it’s more insidious still – it’s the base desire to do absolutely nothing at all. Of the others that are left, I feel that Wrath earns its pride of place to use a rather unfortunate pun, insofar that modern society seems to be shot through with sheer wanton anger which is wont to explode unpredictably anywhere and at any time on both the streets and in the homes of modern society.

The wisdom of the East (desires are seen as afflictions of the psyche which lead to suffering) as well as the wisdom of the West (unbridled desires are vices and deadly sins that lead to eternal punishment) understood this basic psychology at the heart of humankind. Both in their own ways sought to correct this instinctual or animalistic behaviour by various practices like prayer and confession (and other sacraments, sacramentals and devotions) in Roman Catholicism and by asceticism, prayer and meditation in the East. The former, unfortunately oftentimes concentrated too much on fear and even on brutal punishments and death in certain cases while the latter was more often than not gentler and more understanding of the human psyche. Is it any wonder that many contemporary psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists feel at home in Taoism and Buddhism and Eastern prayer and meditation techniques? The Christian tradition has too often been guilt-ridden and guilt-inducing in its methods of controlling its flock. In fact, quite often they saw/see leadership, not as their founder Jesus Christ would have wanted – that is, a shepherd who cares for his flock – but rather in terms of control and consequent punishment for breaking the rules.

The Tao, or rather understanding and accepting its power in our lives, will bring us beyound desires, beyond our cravings, beyond our clinging to things and even clinging to people in relationships, beyond all these lesser things to a more objective position where we see the interconnectedness of things, the deep unity or integrity of things beyond the disparity and the dis-integrity of the many. From the Still Point things hold together. To re-write Yeats, we find that indeed from this newly discovery vantage point “the centre does indeed hold.”

I will finish these musings with another line or two from the Tao Te Ching:

In stanza 11 we read the wonderful paradoxical words:

We join the spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the centre hole
That makes the wagon move.

Above I have appended a picture of our family grave in Roscrea - to bring as it were a realistic if cold perspective on all the above musings.

The Still Point of Being

Trusting the Tao of Things

It’s difficult, oftentimes very difficult, to let go and trust life as we experience it with its entire vicissitudes, that somewhere beneath or above or within us – use whatever preposition you wish – there lies a pattern or a meaning. Let me come straight to the point. Some four weeks back I stood in a large room at the local undertaker’s viewing the body of a brother of a work colleague who had died of cancer. I had met this individual twice or three times through work – an amiable, jovial bon-vivant type of guy. Now here he was, Liam X, laid out in a coffin, just two months before his fiftieth birthday. As I viewed the body I noticed how yellow and shrivelled it was – how lifeless, lifeless, lifeless the cadaver was. In a corner stood his brother with his nephew, both confused and dazed. Liam X was a successful business man who left two beautiful children and a lovely wife, and I’m fairly sure, lots of money. This was a successful man indeed. He once lived life fully. Now he was no more. He was lifeless, lifeless, lifeless.

Why did the death of this man whom I did not know very well – certainly an acquaintance but not a friend – have such an impact on me? Well, I suppose this was a death in which I was not emotionally involved, but rather, almost more significantly, this was a death in which I was philosophically, existentially and by implication of shared years objectively involved. Liam X was exactly 1 month younger than me. I was born January 5th 1958 while he was born in February of that same year. For me, then, Liam X’s death hit me in a deeply conscious, self-enhancing, life-affirming way. It touched roots of being (even non-being) that resided deep within my very core; deep within every single cell of that home I call my body-mind.

Then, there is the coming to terms with my own ageing – what it is like to grow old. I suffer from at least three complaints – high blood pressure, a poor cholesterol level and endogenous depression – for all of which I am on medication. This morning the doctor warned me about my increasing waistline and that my bloods showed an increase in certain sugars which were borderline diabetic. That’s all I need – the possibility of more pills to add to my woes. However, I am not at all upset by these complaints as I will do my best in the New Year to begin exercising and getting my weight down. That way, the doctor advises me I will not be a candidate for diabetes – which, along with high blood pressure, runs in the family. Once again, I found myself observing more objectively than usual what the doctor was saying. Yes, I can do more exercise – definitely I can. Of late, I cannot remember consciously going for any walks. Definitely, there will be New Year resolutions as regards my weight. Also, as I recounted in my last post, I have decided to take at least a year out from teaching. I have decided to inscribe for an M.Phil. in psychoanalysis in TCD. I am beginning to feel that a weight has been taken off my shoulders. I am beginning to feel lighter already as a result of this decision. In like manner, I hope and believe indeed that such decisions will also influence me to make further ones as regards my lifestyle – type of food I consume, as well as the intention to do more physical exercise. If I’ve had the firmness of mind to decide on taking a year out, I can and will exercise the same firmness of mind as regards these other issues.

All of these things listed above, plus all the other existential concerns we experience as we go through life make up what I have called in my title above, “The Tao of Things.” They are the Tao of Things for me right now. I must trust the body sense of all that I am experiencing here and now. The language I am using here in these last few sentences is rooted in the therapy of “focusing” propounded and established by the great psychiatrist, Eugene Gendlin, M.D., and to which I was introduced some years back by a friend of mine. Oftentimes, our bodies know best, and it’s the best of wisdom to listen to its complaints and to take action thereupon.

Lao Tsu (Lao Tzu, Lao Zi) taught that the wisest approach was a way of ‘non struggle action’ ("Wuwei"or "wu wei") – not inaction but rather a harmonisation of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature. ‘The World is ruled by letting things take their natural course. It cannot be ruled by going against nature or arrogance.’ According to Chinese tradition,Laozi lived in the 6th century BC. Historians contend that Laozi actually lived in the 4th century BC, concurrent with the Hundred Schools of Thought and Warring States Period, that he is a synthesis of multiple historical figures or that he is a mythical figure. However, these facts are quite irrelevant to the importance of the teaching contained in that body of wisdom called The Tao or in the religious tenets of the religion called Taoism.

There are many names for Tao, e.g., The Eternal Tao; the Great Tao; the Primal Unity; the Source; the Cosmic Mother; the Infinite and Ineffable Principle of Life; the One; let’s even use that greener than green term Gaia; God; “the Unmoved Mover” (Aristotle); the Moral Order; the Right; the Principle; the Nature of Life’s forces; the Method; the Way; “the Unity behind the Multeity” (Coleridge) - in many ways the concept of Tao resembles the Greek concept of Logos. In fact, in modern translations of the New Testament into Chinese, logos is translated by the word “Tao”. We could add further names to this list of synonyms. Let the reader add his or her own!

I’ll finish this post with a few quotations from the Tao which appeal to me:

Free from desire, you realise the mystery/ Caught in Desire, you see only the manifestations. (Tao 1)

Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place. (Tao 3)

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
And don’t compare and compete,
Everybody will respect you. (Tao 8)

I have taken all my quotations from the lovely edition of the Tao called Tao Te Ching: an Illustrated Journey (Translated by Stephen Mitchell, a Frances Lincoln Publication, 1999).

The picture I have pasted above is one I shot up through the trees from a supine position on the grass in July 2006 in a small park in Pistoia in Tuscany. In a way it expresses the Still Point of Being or the Tao.

Friday, December 21, 2007



I use this word in the plural for a simple and precise reason not related at all to any sophisticated nuances of that same word. The plural is in my mind because my father used the phrase “communications down” when he had a mild stoke just three weeks before he died in 1993. I can remember standing in the hallway of our then home in Artane and his refusing to talk to our Uncle Jimmy who rang frequently for a chat. This was very unlike my father who simply loved people and always used the phone to keep in touch with them. When verbal communications go down humans we can be stranded. My father was stranded. For the first time in my life I saw my father totally lost and confused, and most essentially frightened.

”Communication” is a much used and indeed abused word whether it is used in the singular or in the plural. Here, for the purposes of this post I shall use the singular and plural forms of this word interchangeably as meaning how human beings communicate with each other. For me at any rate, I see communication as happening at a variety of different levels from the surface level on down to the depth level – from the superficial to the profound respectively. It would also seem that there are many other degrees of communication in between these two extremes.

Obviously when you ride on the bus or the tram your relationship to the driver is particularly superficial – perhaps functional would be a better word to describe such relationships. By their very nature, or very obvious function, such relationships must of necessity be shallow or superficial. Our relationships with many other humans is on this functional level – the shop assistant, the waiter or waitress, the washing machine repair man, the mechanic, the electrician or the boiler repair man or plumber all belong to this category.

However, the length of time we spend in the company of these people will also alter the level of communication. What may have started out at a superficial level may be brought deeper by sheer chance or circumstance. Recently, having witnessed an accident that held up traffic on our local main road, I began to hold a conversation with one of the bus drivers of the several buses, which were held up for over an hour. I learned that he was Romanian by nationality, had a degree in music and that bus driving was the only job he could manage to get to keep himself, his wife and family with a rather average standard of living. In other words a functional relationship can be brought deeper by circumstances and by the sheer amount of time we have to spend or do spend in one another’s company.

As a teacher “communication” of content is important. However, as we commendably learned at college many years ago during our teacher education, teaching is so much more that “filling information into empty jugs or vessels.” There is a dynamism in the process of communication that is so much more than content. Indeed, many years later when I was involved in adult education, I learnt that the “process” is more important than the “content” for adult learning. I think and feel that the same applies to teaching young people also – perhaps not with the same intensity. There is also the implicit and explicit attitude of care and respect that the teacher has for the pupil as well as his or her understanding and acceptance of the children with all their various educational abilities or lack of it. When the relationship between teacher and class is good real communication exists. Where good communication exists real teaching and real learning take place.

Obviously there will be different levels of communication going on in different classes. Exploring and discussing a poem may bring a teacher and class far deeper than say working out either chemical formulae or algebraic equations. Likewise a class in life skills or SPHE may bring both class and teacher to depths of understanding and acceptance not reached in other classes. However, here again let me emphasise that each level from superficial to deep or profound is of equal importance. I’m not arguing here for an hierarchy of importance – merely pointing out that there are distinct levels of communication available to us as human beings. The real skill in both living and in doing any job, teaching and learning included, is to be able to skilfully go with ease from level to level as each is called for to do proper justice to the subject or situation at hand.

A skilled communicator can relate to any other in an “I-Thou” way with practice. An “I-It” relationship is purely functional and does have its place in the scheme of things. However, when and if we treat others consistently like objects or things they will justly feel dehumanised and we ourselves are reduced, not alone in their eyes, but with respect to our own sense of dignity and integrity. When we dehumanise others we dehumanise ourselves. When we communicate with others in a dignified and dignifying way we are saying yes to the spirit of life and the light of inspiration that dwells both in the speaker and in the listener. We consequently embrace a shared space and presence that enhances all.

Above I have pasted another picture of our christmas party for the old folks. Again it was taken with my mobile phone. Real commincation takes place so naturally really!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Horizons

Free Spirits and New Directions

Free spirits walk lightly on the face of this earth. I have met some of them in my time on my journey through my life thus far. They are an enviable lot. They simply do not let the world tie them down. They seem to embrace risk. I also love being in their company, as the ties that society throws over the rest of us do not shackle them. They simply do not swallow the “lies” that this same society wants its members to swallow whole. They refuse to be enslaved by jobs or ideas, or worse still ideologies. An image I have of such free souls is that of the silhouette of a walker or climber setting out up a hill or small mountain with his coat slung over his shoulder. Another image is that of the dancer. I am reminded of a beautiful scene from that wonderful novel by Sebastian Barry - The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty - where the young Eneas’s mother dances in the hearth to cheer up both herself and her young son. She, like my imaginary walker, is a free spirit – a wonderful soul who is true to her very nature.

Free spirits are not slaves of money. They do not ape the ways of the so-called successful yuppies, such as, desiring and driving the latest four-wheel-drive jeep, bigger and better houses, better and more lucrative jobs, power by any means possible etc. Promotion at work is often something that does not even enter their consciousness. They are relatively happy with their lot. Please note that I’m being realistic here insofar as I’ve used the word “relatively” to qualify my contention. No one is ever truly and fully happy in his or her lot. We are all subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet so succinctly put it. However, the free spirit knows when things are too stressful or too spirit-crushingly smothering. They simply refuse to be downtrodden by a job or task. They will simply move on to greener pastures. They seem to me to move with an enviable ease and lightness through this oftentimes painful and stressful world.

I write these few lines as I have come to a decision in my life to take a career break from teaching; to refuse to be enslaved by a job that has become spirit crushing and soul destroying for me at this juncture in my career; to pursue my first love – academic study – this time an M.Phil. in psychoanalysis. And after that, who knows what the future will hold for me? I feel lighter already. I have thrown off my shoulders a spiritual and existential weight. Already I am breathing more freely and am walking ever lighter on this earth.

Above is a picture I took of the Abbé at Rouen, June 2006. The architects of such churches certainly had different horizons in mind than we do today.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Festive Interlude

The Spirit of Christmas

The wake of the Celtic Tiger is indeed a dusty, dry, and oftentimes spiritless one. Its dust cloud blurs the vision of communities and chokes the enthusiasm of many for the higher virtues such as the service of others done on a voluntary basis. However, sometimes, when the dust settles, some few good souls come out and attempt to serve even a small libation to those less fortunate who thirst for simple company in a lonely all-too-bleak world.

Once again, I, like many others of my generation, am growing tired of the inevitable round of Christmas parties that pander to appetites of excess whether of food or drink. However, it’s not all naked acquisitiveness and sheer greed. There are the odd few generous and giving souls. In short, these few words were inspired by the generosity and giving of our students at school. While our kids may be rough and oftentimes uncouth and unruly, they are generous to a fault with whatever little they have. This is the festive season, and we teachers and a band of loyal senior students raise money and organize a Christmas party for the old folks or senior citizens of the surrounding area. This is a heart-warming and spirit-lifting enterprise.

Young people do care about the elderly and the less fortunate. This was evidenced by the willingness to help and the cheerful giving of our boys as they raised funds, collected spot prizes, organized caterers, set up the room and decorated it brilliantly, danced with the old folk, sang some songs, served the food and talked to the invited guests in such a caring manner. Such natural goodness is a joy to behold and brings an occasional tear to my eye. St Augustine of Hippo used to say, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Well, there were plenty of cheerful givers last Saturday night at our annual Christmas Party at St Joseph’s from teachers to pupils to parents. Goodness and kindness can be infectious. It has also been said that to give is to receive a thousand times; only when one gives does one appreciate how the good energy or karma of such acts rebounds to the good of the giver in manifold ways, not the least of which is what we may term a very important “feel-good-factor.”

Likewise a timely re-reading of Charles Dickens’s wonderful little seasonal novel A Christmas Carol (1843) is a salutary reminder of the life-strangling and spirit-crushing character of selfishness and meanness. Happily, it’s central character, Ebenezer Scrooge learns before it is too late this salutary lesson when The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come visit him. In the end, he is converted by the impact of these visions to appreciate the true spirit of Christmas as one of giving, caring and sharing. In short, he has been given an opportunity to repent. Scrooge does so and becomes a model of generosity and kindness. "Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge."

Above I have uploaded a few pictures taken on my mobile phone at our Christmas party