Thursday, February 19, 2009

All that Glisters

I remember my mother quoting one line from Shakespeare to us as children.  Now she had left school at 13 or so years of age because that was the practice for poor children in Ireland in 1930.  Imagine they had read several Shakespearean plays in primary school before they were 13!  Anyway, back to the point.  The quotation which she often repeated for us children was: “All that glisters is not gold.”  This comes from the play The Merchant of Venice.  These days the citizens of planet earth are beginning, just beginning, to learn this lesson.  In the wake of the Celtic Tiger’s untimely (or was it timely?) demise the trappings of wealth and success – holidays abroad, a second house in the sun, four wheel drive vehicles, parties, big cars etc – are now become mere mirages.  Oh my goodness, it is probably a truism to state that each succeeding generation has to learn the lessons of the previous for themselves.  The myth of power, of success, of continued and increasing wealth was one which was swallowed whole by modern humankind.  We in Ireland have only come to wealth and its trappings in the past twenty years or so.  Now, we see that we were fools, that we bought into the lies which we were sold by advertisers etc.

Fool’s Gold:

The Celtic Tiger with its seeming unstoppable gallop was merely an imaginary construct of greedy and avaricious capitalists.  In fact what these bankers and speculators sold the Irish people was not real valuable gold but rather fool’s gold. Fool's gold  (I repeat the term for emphasis, even though it is rather stylistically amateur to use the same words in such close proximity) is another name for pyrite, also known as iron pyrite or iron sulphide.  Its shiny yellow lustre fooled many into believing they had struck the real thing, when really all they possessed was a mineral of little value.
The name pyrite is from Greek “pyrites” (of fire), from “pyr” (fire) because it produces sparks when struck against a hard surface. Some related words are fire, pyre, pyrosis (heartburn), pyromania (an irresistible impulse to set things on fire), and empyreal (relating to the sky or heaven, believed to contain pure light or fire).  So much for the etymology.  Once again I advise readers to access the wonderful site on words named AWAD where you can literally sign up for “A Word a Day,” the letters of which make the acronymic name of the site, by clicking here: AWAD.

I’ve been reading a lot on meditation and even doing a little practice.  Now, as a meditator I fully realise that I should be doing a little reading and a lot of meditation.  However, that ideal remains my goal.  Anyway, one of the things that meditation seeks to do for the practitioner is to allow him or her cease their clinging to things which of their very nature are subject to decline and decay like ourselves indeed.  Nothing lasts forever and our desires and drives are after all merely illusions when we have time to sit and think about them.  Can we really possess things?  Ask yourself this question.  As I sit typing these words I ask myself these questions:  Do I really possess (a much different word philosophically from ‘own’) this computer, the music to which I’m listening (a recording of Andrea Bocelli singing Romanza from the album of the same name) or the many thousands of books I own?  Can I really possess the house and car which I also own?  Can I really and truly possess them?  Are they extensions of my personality?  Do they define me in some way?  What do they say about me?  What do all my possessions say about me?  Then back to what my late father, a great human being, used to say:  “There are no pockets in a shroud” or yet again: “You cannot take it with you.”  If you cannot take it with you, then in how far can we say we possess anything at all?  Even our own lives, our very being, can we really possess them?

Now, to turn things somewhat on their heads, can we not say that we are possessed by the things we gather around us.  Let me put what I’ve said in the immediate paragraph in a series of questions.  This expression in question format of the above sentiments may be a more potent way of driving my message home to myself first and foremost:  Does my computer possess me?  Do words possess me?  Do my ambitions as a writer possess me?  Do my books, my joy, my salary, may car, my home, mu family possess me?  Okay, this is just a way of speaking, but it does have its point.  I love the distinction which I have alluded to many times ion my posts on this blog, namely the contrast which the great social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted between “being” and “having” modes of Existence. He published a book called To Have or To Be (1976) (How far he was influenced by the great French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel I cannot say; Marcel wrote a famous autobiographical book called Being and Havingg in 1945)  Of course, we need to have certain basics in life as are beautifully and succinctly laid out in his pyramid of needs by the late great psychologist Abraham Maslow.  However, it is the deadly driven-ness of humankind to have more and more and more at the expense of our very own being that costs us greatly, even to the point of extinction.  I’m referring to human beings’ sheer greed and avarice which is putting the eventual survival of our planet at stake.  It is beyond my intention here to speak of the ecological crisis with which this planet is faced.

Another major contributor to our self-delusions of grandeur as a race is our very hubris or pride.  We have placed humanity and its achievements on such a high pedestal that we have forgotten our roots in nature.  After all, we are creatures of this world.  In forgetting that we are creatures of this planet we have committed a great category mistake to my mind – if I may be so bold as to appropriate a term coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle.  Yes, I suppose in intellect and in certain spiritual gifts we are greater than our fellow animals and plants – yes, yes, yes.  But, but, but, we are still very much part of this planet in our creaturliness which can only be denied at the high cost of our eventual extinction as a race.  We grow, bloom and expire with our fellow creatures after all.  In meditating we learn to take on board this new perspective of putting things in their natural places; we learn to appreciate life; we learn to put things in perspective; we learn to get a handle on our base desires; we learn that we live in connection or connectivity with everything else – that we are part of the web of life; we learn to accept ourselves as we truly are; we learn to live with beginnings and ends, with births and deaths; we learn to contemplate the whole universe as one reality in which we are just a small point of awareness; we learn to observe the seasons of the earth and indeed our own human seasons; we learn in short to live and die with dignity.

By way of ending this post let me return to the wonderful above AWAD site and look at the very meaning of the root word to “possess.”  There I read that the word “possess”  comes from the Latin “possidere”, again from “potis” (having the power) + “sedere” (to sit). So when you possess something, say a patch of earth, you have the power to sit upon it, literally speaking.  And strangely enough my meditation practice, like all such practices, is about sitting.  Scholars, gurus and lamas recommend that we sit like mountains, sturdy, erect and objective as we observe our breath and the clear blue sky of consciousness across which the clouds of our earthly preoccupations flit in distractive words, phrases and thoughts.  In sitting every day at a given time we learn to come to terms with life; to come to terms with self; to come to terms with the nature of things by objectively observing them , by going with the flow, never pushing against the natural flow or force or energy that is at the heart of life.  To meditate means that we sit and that the only thing or rather the only reality upon which we sit and can truly possess is our very essence, our very being.  That is the only earthly point we can sit upon.  To be is so much more important and so much more life-enhancing than to have. 

Above another picture I took recently. I'll call it Winter Tree. It's worth pordering a little - the bare branches against a not too cold winter sky!

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