Friday, March 07, 2008

Talk, Truth and Therapy

When my father died I had the privilege of meeting some of his friends whom I did not know. One of them informed me that he really loved my father whom he described as a gentleman. Then he recounted what my father had said about me, his second born, namely that I was a great talker and that I was also a great feeder who apparently always took the biggest portion of anything at mealtime.

Talking has always appealed to me. Indeed my father was a good talker, too. To express oneself is surely the most important task any human being has in life, and talking is only one method among others of communicating. Stories are important to our very identity both as a nation and as a people; and even more important to our identity as individuals. To tell your story is a privilege and to listen to the story of another human being a greater privilege still. One only has to recall the famous inauguration speech of Mary Robinson our first female president of Ireland.

However, an inveterate talker is full of “old wind” and is to be avoided – that’s not what I refer to here. Some people have simply too much to say and perhaps if they have too much too say, much of that will be rubbish. “Hot air” and “old wind” are not at question here. A good talker to my mind must also be a good listener. Talking and listening are the two sides, as it were, of the one coin. One without the other is practically useless. A good talker also knows and appreciates whether the occasion is suitable for his/her words or stories, whether the timing is right etc. He or she will also suit their talk to their audience. Likewise, they will not be seeking to impress. We all avoid like the plague those who are egotists, sycophants and people who love to play either mind or emotional games of one kind or another. These people simply do not appreciate the art of fine communication as real talk of real things that concern the human mind and indeed the human heart.

We hear much about talk therapy, and indeed talking is good for our souls. To sit down with a friend over a cup of tea or coffee or a pint of Guinness or some other beverage and share one’s story and listen to that of the other is surely one of the quintessential pleasures of life. Much philosophy, theology, and any other meaningful “-ology” is discussed on such occasions. In her inauguration speech as Uachtarán na hÉireann in 1990, Mary Robinson set herself the task of “listening to the stories” of all groups, e that then went to make up the nation of Ireland, especially to minorities and to the 70 million people who claimed an Irish heritage or identity worldwide, a group which she dubbed “the Irish Diaspora,” a phrase to be much associated with this brilliant woman. Here is a little snatch from a speech she made before the Houses of the Oireachtas, 02/02/1995 with an emphasis on her appreciation of the importance of listening to the stories of others:-

Last summer, in the city of Cracow, I was greeted in Irish by a Polish student, a member of the Polish-Irish Society. In Zimbabwe I learned that the Mashonaland Irish Association had recently celebrated its centenary. In each country visited I have met Irish communities, often in far-flung places, and listened to stories of men and women whose pride and affection for Ireland has neither deserted them nor deterred them from dedicating their loyalty and energies to other countries and cultures. None are a greater source of pride than the missionaries and aid workers who bring such dedication, humour and practical common sense to often very demanding work. Through this office, I have been a witness to the stories these people and places have to tell.

The more I know of these stories the more it seems to me an added richness of our heritage that Irishness is not simply territorial. In fact, Irishness as a concept seems to me at its strongest when it reaches out to everyone on this island and shows itself capable of honouring and listening to those whose sense of identity, and whose cultural values, may be more British than Irish. It can be strengthened again if we turn with open minds and hearts to the array of people outside Ireland for whom this island is a place of origin. After all, emigration is not just a chronicle of sorrow and regret. It is also a powerful story of contribution and adaptation.

I have purposely bolded and italicised the sections where the word "story" or "stories" appear in the above piece.  Story involves a speaker and an audience and some dynamic communication that occurs between both these parties.  Something dynamic - some powerful sense of identity, some powerful appreciation of selfhood is experienced in the human transaction or human interaction we call by the title "communication."

Real talk involves real communication (a dynamic of speaking and listening and more) which in turn embraces whatever we know of personal and interpersonal "truth."  What a loaded word this last term is.  How often do we hear many people, oh so many, disputing this or that or the other version of the truth with respect to this or that or the other event.  This is a daily occurrence, indeed.  Then, we recall Francis Bacon's brilliant essay that begins:  "What is Truth?" said jesting Pilate, and he did not wait for an answer."  Does Truth qua Truth really exist?  Is there an objective slab like the stones on which the Ten Commandments were written anywhere out there in the world of ideas or values?  Is there such a thing or reality as Objective Truth?  Or is it all Relative?  Or does it all depend on one's perspective?  (Relativism and Perspectivism respectively).  Or recall, as I have quoted in these pages many times, that old chestnut that "we see things not as they are in themselves but as we are."  So truth, or more correctly truths always have something personal and relative above them.  Probably more objective truths lie somewhere where all these arcs of personal truths intersect - namely is commonly accepted truths of reality as it exists for us in community or in society.  These are the things we agree on as existing or happening etc.

Anyway, I argue here that my truth or my version of my truth is the most important aspect of me - my very Self, my very Soul or my very Truth.  It is my identity, that construct of personal meaning that I have laboriously built up through living.  The real Truth, whatever that may be, I believe is constructed when we human beings interact and communicate with each other and construct some meaningful meaning through dialogue.  Various cultures and peoples construct their specific cultural truths this way.  Then various cultures dialogue with each other and construct supranational and supra-cultural values and beliefs - ethics and morals which have more universal application.

Then comes my third and final word in the above title, namely "therapy." 

Therapy (in Greek: θεραπεία) is the attempted remediation of a health problem, usually following a diagnosis. In the medical field, it is synonymous with the word "treatment".  When I think of therapy I think of "healing" in all of its aspects from physical to psychological to spiritual.  I certainly do not think of "curing."  One can be healed but not cured with respect to many illnesses, especially mental ones.  One might be healed in the sense that one gains a new perspective on life, a deeper acceptance of the way things are or even can be for me from here on out.  To write, to talk, to listen to music, to paint, to sculpt, to sing, to dance etc - and to express our Self in the myriad of ways that are open to us - are all ways of healing, or if you like, all methods of therapy.

However, needless to say, it often pays to engage with professional therapists like psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, trainers or helpers who have been trained in methods of healing the wounded psyche.  Yes, we can indeed do much of the work alone, but there do come times when we need professional help and intervention.  Such help allows us to get to grips with the wisdom that lies hidden in the very depths of our own being - that is in our unconscious mind and at the level of the collective unconscious. 

As a lover of words, of authenticity (integrity) and of healing - in short, as a human being committed to self-development - I subscribe to the beautiful and unique, if at times painful and challenging, dynamic interplay of Talk, Truth and Therapy, an alluring alliterative unity that goes to make up human living and human meaning.

Another view of the hills or mountains around Delphi. Landscape being so pure can be very healing indeed!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Myths, Mind and Meaning

Who has never been enthralled by the fabulous and wondrous stories of the Greek myths?  It seems that all of Western Culture and especially the Western Mind owes much to its mystique.  For any of us who have visited any of the many islands that go to make up modern an d indeed ancient Greece we realise that much of their imagination came from the beautiful and sun-bleached landscapes and seascapes.  Cut off from the European continent by ranges of inhospitable mountains the ancient Greeks were forced to take to the sea.  From the Olympian Poseidon to the goddess Aphrodite, from nymphs to monsters, time and time again the sea embodies ancient Greek preoccupations with the human condition.

On a scientific level we know that water is the key to life.  First life began its tentative movements from beneath the seas - ancient and prehistoric life crawled out to the surface of the earth from its very dark watery bosom and from there evolved into life as we know it today.  Also on a psychological or psychic level the sea represents our unconscious life.  Just like so much unknown and occluded life lives under the surface of the sea, so also so much unknown and occluded psychic content lives under the surface of the conscious mind.

Then, of course, mainly stemming from the work of the late great mythologist Joseph Campbell, there has been the modern preoccupation with the relevance of mythological themes to popular psychology and to the self-help movement in general.  Since the mid-twentieth century many psychologists and alternative healers have literally plundered the myths of ancient Greece and other equally old cultures as sources of inspiration and insight into the human condition.

These days it is fashionable to be Green - obviously I refer to the environmental movement rather than the Irish Republican movement when I use this description.  Here, I should like to refer to the wonderful, if contentious, Gaia hypothesis advanced by the scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Magulis in the 1970s of the last century.  They argued quite unorthodoxly that the earth itself is a single organism.  Every living thing, including human beings, is said to be part of GaiaGaia is the Greek goddess of the earth and the quintessential mother of all life. 

Gaia, then is the mother of all life.  Essentially this is the story of the creation of the world from the ancient Greek point of view.  Briefly, this creation myth runs thus:- In the beginning there was Chaos.  Then came Gaia, the Earth, Tartarus, beautiful Eros, dark Erebus, and then Night.  Then Night lay with Erebus to father Aether, the bright air, and Day.  Some time later , Earth gave birth to Ouranos, the starry heavens, so that he could provide a safe home for the blessed gods.  Gaia or Earth created the hills and Pontos, the raging and deep sea.  Next Earth lay with her own offspring Ouranos and gave birth to Oceanus, Coeus and Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Tethys.  Finally earth gave birth to Chronos, the most terrible of her children.  Of course, Chronus hated Ouranos.

Of course, one can get bogged down by all the strange names above, by the idea of strange and incestuous relations between certain of these gods, even relations between gods and humans etc.  Then, a rational mind can be thrown off balance by the sheer non-rational and irrational actions of these strange beings.  However, we must find our balance immediately if we are in any sense beings who have a holistic view on human life as being an always interesting mixture of both the rational and irrational.  Poets and novelists have always looked to mythologies for inspiration:- practically all the Romantic poets and T.S.  Eliot, W.B. Yeats, to name but two modern poets; James Joyce and André Gide to mention but two modern novelists.  Then came the psychiatrists and psychologists who saw Greek myth especially as a quarry to plunder for all their various  theories of  complexes and archetypes - I refer here, of course, to the father of psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud) and to the founder of the school of Analytic Psychology (Carl Gustave Jung).  If one has patience these great Greek myths can teach us a lot about the darkest of aspects of the human mind, namely our unconscious, which, like the great oceans from whose bosom original life crawled aeons ago, often lies  unexplored for many reasons of primal fears locked within its dark and foreboding depths.

Above I have uploaded a picture of one of the mountains (or hills) around the Delphi Centre. Mountains and hills capture much of the human spirit - No wonder Olympus was the home of the Gods.