Monday, January 17, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 5

Introduction

Fishermen mending their nets, Soverato, January 2011
As you will see by the title of today's post I am continuing my reflections on Professor Paul Gilbert's Book The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010). In the interim I have posted three poems, two from Robert Lowell and one from W.B. Yeats to break the monotony.  I feel their two very different and sui generis styles add some more depth to our considerations on the nature of compassion.

Complacency and laziness are two sins/failings that lie within our nature, or very likely indeed they may be learnt behaviours as traditionally the human animal was built for survival, and these two traits would certainly shorten one's life in ancient times.  It is, therefore, quite helpful and challenging if we push ourselves to achieve any goal that is worth achieving - learning to swim, learning to drive, exercising to get down weight, attending to our psychological as well as physical needs, studying to take a certificate, diploma or degree.  All of these activities, which are geared towards improving our self-esteem are clearly to be advocated.  They will give us a greater sense of self.  In a sense doing all these things is in essence a compassionate stance towards the self.

The Myth of the Self

Within the existential philosophies it has been argued that our very lives must become our projects. (Sartre et al)  Indeed, what greater project can any individual have than the project of his /her own life?  One of greatest personal Copernican revolutions that occurred to me in my lifetime was having to spend some seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital when I was forty years of age to help alleviate a very bad bout of clinical depression from which I was then suffering.  For the first time in my life I had encountered the chameleon nature of the self.  Indeed, I remember saying to myself that I was little more than a collocation of chemicals, recalling a phrase somewhat similar from Bertrand Russell's writings.  As the heavy-duty psychiatric drugs kicked in my sense of self became all too fluid and all too nebulous.  Indeed, then I had to go on an anti-depressant for life.  Without this, then, I should slip back into some sort of chemical hell where the neurotransmitters sparked wrongly or did not spark at all; where they made the wrong connections or none at all; where synapses literally did their own thing - wrongly at that!  In short on an existential level I encountered the reality of the myth of self.

Gilbert speaks of the "illusion of self" from which we suffer.  Let me quote some of his words here:

Some believe that, by training our minds in certain ways (which will include meditation), we can have insights about this whole "nature of self" business.  We may come to see it more as an illusion, the sense of a separate self evolved partly to help direct and regulate those old "brain/mind" systems in their pursuiit of survival and the reproduction of genmes.  Tricky that one, isn't it?  When you stand back from the sense of "being an individual self and recognise that you are the repository of passions and feelings that have been knocking about for millions of years,  that in a way they live through you, but they're not you, you can develop new insights into the very nature of your mind.  Consider, too, that if the "me-ness of me" is a pattern of firings in the brain, I might be able to train it to adopt certain patterns that will give me experiences of well-being and very different experiences of "me-ness.".  I might be able to exert some control over the patterns that get etched onto my "field of consciousness." (Op.cit., p. 47  Italics are Gilbert's)
I have argued, and I believe Gilbert would agree with me, that if there is "the curse of the self", (a phrase he uses many times in the present book) there must also be "the cure of the self."  I use the word "cure" here because of its alliterative concordance with the first phrase, though I intuitively prefer the notion of healing to the notion of cure; although, come to think of it, this second phrase "the cure of the self" has a long tradition within Christian theology where certain spiritual practices were seen as a "cure of souls."

Tropea, Calabria, Gennaio 2011
Therefore, it is Gilbert's contention that compassionate practices like meditation, contemplation, writing poems, attending counsellors and psychotherapists and journalling to list a small number are the ways in which we may heal or cure ourselves.  Such compassion for ourselves involves building up our senses of self; using our imagination through our creative practices to accomplish our very own project - to be as fully "me" as I can.  In this sense my Self, my real Self is a highly personal, imaginative and holistic construct.

And, then, dear reader, we must also learn to confront the reality of our own limitations.  At school and college we must learn to live with what we are less good at, and to choose subjects that will be able to bring forth our true potential.  In short, we learn to be content with doing our best, and in knowing that we can do no more than that.  Even heroes eventually learnt that they, too, had feet of clay!  As a Resource and Learning Support teacher, the biggest task I face is teaching pupils to cease "beating themselves up" when they are poor at Math, English or whatever.  Slowly, I try to build up their self-esteem, and bit by bit teach them that they will grasp this or that topic if they only believe in themselves; if only they try to be less frustrated with themselves; if only they can accept that it's okay not to understand this or that;  that the lesson of life is that all of us must learn to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves because none of us can understand everything anyway.  Life is hard, very hard.  But the wisdom of human culture has taught us ways to cope, and effecetive ways at that.  That's why at our peril we dismiss as nonsense the wisdom of all the various religions, even if we are sceptics, agnostics or atheists.

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