Saturday, February 09, 2008

It's All in The Mind 1

Long ago - in the mid to late seventies to be precise - I remember a friend of mine always using this phrase, or more properly this sentence, that is, that "it's all in the mind.  His name was Noel Brosnan, a Cork man, with whom I have long lost contact.  Noel had studied philosophy at Maynooth University before he had come to Mater Dei Institute of education in 1976.  As he was an accomplished footballer and quite a good philosopher I was somewhat in awe of him.  However , I always associate this phrase with him in my mind.

I suppose my title is one of those "throw-away" phrases or sentences that we all use from time to time without paying too much attention to them.  However, unlike most of our other "disposable" or "throw-away" phrases, it possesses a profundity of insight.  It is, after all, in the final analysis - if I may pile cliché upon cliché for effect - down to the way we see the world or the way we perceive the world around us.  It has always intrigued me over the years the various versions of the same incident one will get from different witnesses.  Oftentimes, I have wondered whether they had witnessed the same incident at all.  Then, you have to add in all the various biases and prejudices of individuals into the mix.

And so, we are back to the very important philosophical debate between subjectivity and objectivity.  How objective can I be?  I have often asked myself this question when correcting an essay.  Am I influenced by how well behaved this or that student is in class?  Are my marks influenced by whether I like or dislike this individual?  How objective, in fact, are my results? This has always been the arguments used by various teachers unions against continual assessment in favour of the more objective standing of the examination system's results - after all they are marked anonymously by unknown examiners. 

Long ago, back when I was in first year college we did a course on perception in our psychology classes.  The two famous drawings that can be interpreted two distinct ways come readily to mind from those lectures.  The first was either a drawing of a candle holder or two distinct faces looking at each other depending on how one looked at the picture.  The second was a picture of a very old lady or a very young woman depending also on how one looked at the drawing.  The following is a very good site to look at with respect to the "tricks" our perception can play on us: Visual Puzzles.

There is also another very famous sentence, one which I also like very much and which indeed I have quoted many times in these pages.  That sentence runs:  "We see the world (or things) not as it is (they are), but as we are."  I have long given up the attempt to trace the original speaker of this sentence or thinker of this thought.  I have found it variously ascribed to The Talmud, traditional Jewish proverb, Anais Nin, Carl Gustave Jung and even Immanuel Kant.  However, I think, like my title, it probably is attributable to many.  Anyway, the sense of this statement that "we see things not as they are in themselves, but as we are" has many important implications for us - not alone for the way we think, but also for the way we act in and on our  world.  Salutary lessons are that things may not be as they seem to us at all.  We may be too quick to jump to conclusions about others.  I have long believed that we are (and certainly I am or have been quite often) too quick to jump to conclusions about the actions and motivations of others.  Indeed oftentimes things are not what they seem to be. 

We get a similar lesson in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  That is what the Searcher/Qoheleth tells us in a passage in Ecclesiastes 6, where he declares that things are not what they seem to be. We think life is one way and it turns out to be something quite different. His thesis is that we may be reading everything that is happening to us entirely wrong. In Chapter 6, the Qoheleth, the Searcher of Israel, says that prosperity may not always be good; and in the first fourteen verses of Chapter 7 he takes up the opposite and accompanying truth - that adversity may not always be bad.

Now a little pure philosophy if you can bear with me for a few moments.  Immanuel Kant asserts that perception is based both upon experience of external objects and a priori knowledge (a priori knowledge is knowledge that is already there). The external world, he writes, provides those things which we sense. It is our mind, though, that processes this information about the world and gives it order, allowing us to comprehend it. Our mind supplies the conditions of space and time to experienced objects. According to the "transcendental unity of apperception", the concepts of the mind (Understanding) and the intuitions which garner information from phenomena (Sensibility) are synthesized by comprehension. Without the concepts, intuitions are nondescript; without the intuitions, concepts are meaningless — thus the famous quotation, "Intuitions without concepts are blind; concepts without intuitions are empty."  In other words there is the Mind that perceives and the objects perceived through the five senses and our perception of them is a more complex process than just registering them on an empty screen as it were.  The Mind in itself is not purely a Tabula Rasa or Empty slate - this latter thesis states that individual human beings are born with no innate or built-in mental content and their minds are in a word, "blank", and that their entire resource of knowledge is built up gradually from their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world.  Kant was to prove this this thesis, while containing not a little empirical truth, needed to be complemented by a more sophisticated understanding of mind .

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Timely Poem Written after an Untimely Death


Even the downpour, unseasonable,
The cranks on the radio, unreasonable,
Cannot bring us down to those dark places
Where no light is and death reigns.
Like Lear we will rail against
The fury of the storms that hit,

And when our fury’s spent
We will rest a while
With the droplets of rain lulling us
To a sleep full of dreams
Where our lost friends live
Whom we embrace – so real -
Like the touch of your warm silken body -

And the rain keeps falling but who cares,
It waters the dry wastelands of the soul
And brings daisies dancing on the lawn
And a feast of worms for the starlings
That nest above us in the eaves.
They chirp on and on unmindful…

Of knives that cut and kill,
Of the deafening sounds of ambulances,
Of the confusion that reigns
On the dark streets where lost souls live
Behind the doors of death.

In the graveyard there’s a small cross
That marks the spot
Where our young friend lies
Smothered in the flowers of our grief’s love,

And still the rain pours down,
Lashing the windowpane above our bed,
On and on like a sacred mantra
Wishing life not death,
Washing us clean,
Cleansing us of our sins.

Above I have uploaded a beautiful picture of some stained glass I took at St Cronin's Church, Roscrea where I was baptized. I took this picture last October

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Musical Interlude -The Brilliant Brel

If you have never heard the wonderful voice of Jacques Brel then you simply have not lived.  I say this with complete conviction.  As I type these words I am listening to his wonderfully intense voice.  His is a voice that has a unique quality or timbre like an old French cognac tinged with cigar smoke.  His voice has an intensity that can move us, and certainly this present writer, to great depths of emotion.  Indeed, if I may indulge myself in a little ecstatic praise and an unaccustomed verbosity, I can say that his powerful voice shakes me to the foundations of my being.  Exaggeration surely, I hear you ask.  Perhaps.  However, my justification must lie solely in my requesting you to listen to him, or preferable still listen to some of his recordings on YouTube where you will get to taste visually and aurally this very intensity to which I allude.  The following two links will allow you to view and to listen to the wonderfully intense and magically enthusiastic Brel: Clip Brel 1 and Clip Brel 2 .

I have referred to a goodly number of male and female singers in these pages, notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. (See my posts on Singers) Both these singers are wonderful poets, lyricists and balladeers.  While they do not express the same depth of intensity as Jacques Brel, I feel they both share with him a vision of human life that embraces humankind in all his highs and lows.  However, I believe that Jacques Brel portrayed a darker vision of humanity than the other two. The quality and style of his lyrics are highly regarded by many leading critics of popular music.  I have heard it said that some Buddhist monks like listening to Leonard Cohen because they see his music as being particularly relaxing and meditative.  I find the same thing with the songs of both Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel.

Jacques Romain Georges Brel (1929 – 1978) was a Belgian French-speaking singer-songwriter who was Flemish through and through.  Unfortunately he was a heavy smoker (which probably added to the timbre of his voice) who died far too young of lung cancer.  He was also a fine actor and a not insignificant film director. He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, and is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time.  The WIKI states in its excellent article that: "Brel's romantic lyricism sometimes revealed darkness and bitter irony. At moments his tender love songs might show flashes of barely suppressed frustration and resentment. His insightful and compassionate portraits of the so-called dregs of society: the alcoholics, drifters, drug addicts, and prostitutes described in 'Jef', 'La chanson de Jacky' and 'Amsterdam' evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle." (See the appropriate article in the WIKI: Brel.

Edith Piaf, another favourite singer of mine shares the same intensity and primal energy as does Brel and "le Petit Oiseau" was to say this of Brel's singing prowess: "He goes to the limit of his strength because, through his singing, he expresses his reason for living and each line hits you in the face and leaves you dazed."  I have many favourite Brel songs, most notably the wonderfully lyrical Quand on n'a que l'amour through which he first became famous in France in 1956/1957.  This is a wonderful song to which you simply must listen.  The magic of both the lyrics and the music and the sheer beauty of the french all conspire to moving the listener to the depths of his/her being.  I'll quote three unsequential verses in the original French and offer a poor translation of each:

Quand on n'a que l'amour

A offrir en prière

Pour les maux de la terre

En simple troubadour

When one has only love

To offer in prayer

For those of the world who suffer

As a simple troubadour (singer).

Quand on n'a que l'amour

Pour tracer un chemin

Et forcer le destin

A chaque carrefour

When one only has love

To follow the road

And force one's destiny

At every crossroad

Alors sans avoir rien

Que la force d'aimer

Nous aurons dans nos mains,

Amis le monde entier

So, without having anything at all

But the force of love

We will have in our hands,

My friends, the whole world.

After a while you will find yourself singing along with Brel's wonderfully expressive and beautiful French. There are other wonderful verses, but I feel it would be excessive of me to put them here and attempt my poor translation. Other favourite songs are Amsterdam, Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mathilde, Les Vieux Amants, Isabelle, La Valse a Mille Temps and, of course, the wonderfully expressive Je t'aime.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Buddha's Suggested Solution

As a teacher of some 28 years I am well used to offering suggested solutions to examination questions.  I have always liked the qualifying adjective "suggested" as it lessens the dogmatism and the tyranny of one answer.  An old Christian Brother who taught me many years ago always used quote for us his favourite saying: "Always beware the man of one book!" - "Fainic fear an aon leabhair amháin!"  And so the title "Buddha's Suggested Solution" appeals to the liberal open-minded thinker in me.  Indeed it's the almost clinical, if not "objective" observation of one's own mind or more precisely of all the physical sensations and the thoughts and feelings the mind notices during any meditation sitting that attracts me.  It's a practical and pragmatic method also.  Meditation offers a fairly objective practice.  I shy away from saying a totally objective practice for obvious reasons.

I have already stressed the (often not so obvious because often unconscious) fact that our unrealistic, irrational and non-rational and very often our overly romantic ideals can lead to suffering.  If I have unrealistic expectations in this life I'm certainly setting myself up for a fall.  If I'm irrationally or non-rationally a perfectionist I'll eventually drive myself crazy.  If I believe that perfection exists then I'm also setting myself up for much angst and worry.  If I am overly dependent on others I'm also setting myself up for rejection at some stage when rows inevitably happen, or worse still when the other person leaves.  If I'm overly clinging to my reputation or career etc, then also I am setting myself up for probable suffering.  As I say, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was a brilliant psychologist.  He realised all the foregoing points I have enumerated just now and suggested his Four Noble Truths as the way to fight suffering.  They appeal to many people, as they do to me, as a fairly good practical solution to the many existential, intellectual and moral problems posed by the mystery of evil.

1. First Noble Truth:

The Nature of Suffering (= Dukkha):
"Now this ... is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief all forms of clinging (this is called Upadana and comprises at least four types of clinging: self-doctrine clinging, wrong-view clinging, rites-and-rituals clinging, and, of course sense-pleasure clinging)


2.  Second Noble Truth:

Suffering's Origin (= Samudaya):
"Now this ... is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination."  In other words, what seems to happen is that craving becomes involved with my sense of self - I am the one who craves.  This sense of self or separation is a misleading and inaccurate understanding of life and gives rise to ego-centric grasping.

3. The Third Noble Truth:

Suffering's Cessation (Nirodha):
"Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainder-less fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it."  I must give up egocentric grasping.  This entails, according to Bob Nairn, "getting directly in touch with the ignorance and desire that cause grasping, seeing it for what it is, and then letting go.  Then nirvana - extinction of thirst - is experienced." (What is Meditation, Shambhala, Boston, 2000, p. 24)


 4.  The Fourth Noble Truth:

The Way (Magga) leading to the Cessation of Suffering:
"Now this ... is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is called The Middle Way and is expressed essentially in what is called the Noble Eightfold Path that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."   Bob Nairn describes the Middle Way thus: "It is the way of balance, good sense and no extremes.  There are two extremes into which both worldly people and practitioners fall.  The first is hedonism: the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses.  This does not work because it is degrading, dissipates vital human energy, and ultimately leads to greater human suffering and bondage.  The second is the search for happiness through self-mortification and extreme asceticism - not so common in the West, but very common in India at the time of the Buddha." (Op. cit., 25-26)


I'll end this post with some more of my favourite Buddhist quotations:

  • Loss of mindfulness is why people engage in useless pursuits, do not care for their own interests, and remain unalarmed in the presence of things which actually menace their welfare.


  • Shakyamuni Buddha said, "Judge not others; judge only yourself." What appear to be faults in others may actually be reflections of our own emotional afflictions.
    -Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, in Advice From A Spiritual Friend

  • Just witness your mind and the meditation will be happening.And once you have got in tune with your being, you know the way, you know the how.Then it does not matter where you are. Alone or in the crowd, in the silences of the forest or in the noises of a marketplace, it is all the same. You can simply close your eyes and disappear inwards.

  • Better than a thousand useless words is one word that gives peace.


  • Overcome your uncertainties and free yourself from dwelling on sorrow. If you delight in existence, you will become a guide to those who need you, revealing the path to many.
    -Sutta Nipata


  • Laughter is spiritual health. And laughter is very unburdening. While you laugh, you can put your mind aside very easily. For a man who cannot laugh the doors of the buddha are closed.

Above I have uploaded a meditative picture - it shows Donabate Strand and I took it around 2 years ago!