Saturday, August 13, 2011

Interlude - The Search for Self

The Search for the Still Point of Self

Getting to know oneself on Sant'Andrea Beach
One would have thought that by the grand old age of 53 years one would have found the solid ground of Self, or at least some firm viewing point from which to observe both ascent and descent in one’s life. But, that seems not to be the case. One simply never manages to arrive at that final destination – perhaps true self-knowledge is only encountered in dying and in death. And, then, often when one thinks one has arrived at the final destination, one suddenly realises that it is yet again another beginning. In getting to know oneself, I often think of a maze which winds spirally ever inwards. Death must surely be at the centre or end-point of that inwardly moving spiral?

As a young boy, I can never remember being pre-occupied with many thoughts. Certainly I was a sensitive little soul. I suppose we all are as children. However, it was the magic of books that from early on captivated my child’s mind. Was it something about their contents? I don’t know. My first memories are that they were rather rare and precious where I grew up. As a working class child we had very little of them indeed. The first books I remember were my school books. I was lucky as I had very good teachers when I was a small boy, and one great schoolmaster who always gave me books for doing well in my exams. Luckily, I always did well in them, and luckily, too, I always received books. Early on also, I loved the feel of books, their smell, indeed, their wonderful covers and arranging them on shelves in our sitting room at home.

From early on, then, books had become my inseparable companions. And they remain so to this day. As I write these words, I have spent almost two weeks of holiday on my own in Calabria, Southern Italy, in a little coastal town called Isca Marina, which is just 10 kilometres south of the better known town of Soverato. I love this holiday period as it has become my annual retreat where I encounter my Self at a very deep level, at a far deeper level that I do when I am at home in Ireland surrounded by family and friends. Here, I meet this Self, almost from minute to minute. The reading I bring with me also helps me in this encounter.

For this present retreat I am reading the following books: (i) Night (Hill and Wang, 2006) by Elie Wiesel for the second time, (ii) Distance (Penguin, 1998) by Colin Thubron, also for a second time, (iii) The Art of Happiness by The Dalai Lama and Dr Howard Cutler (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998)for a third time, (Iv) Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (Harper Collins, 1997) by Dr Anthony Storr, (v) When Nietzsche Wept (Perennial Classics, 1993, 2005) by Irvin D. Yalom and (vi) a short book in Italian called Afghanistan dove Dio viene solo per Piangere by Siba Shakib, (Edizioni Piemme, 2002, 2008).

I find that I am reading them simultaneously, which allows me to leave one down and take another up. Their subject matter interests me profoundly as in reading them I am searching for a deeper knowledge of myself within their covers. As a young boy the covers of books were always eye-catching and enticing – as all good book publishers, well aware of the potency of advertising, well know. I have also always been entranced by a good title, and all of the above books possess just that attribute. Then, certain authors more than others have a potent allure for me – anything by Elie Wiesel, or Irvin Yalom or Colin Thubron (a brilliant travel writer as well as an equally talented novelist) or any good spiritual author like the Dalai Lama.

Horseman - Sant'Andrea Beach
One could say all of these books listed have in common the human search for Self, a search for meaning, the search for some Still Point of Existence. As I have said many times in these posts over the years, we are meaning-making creatures, and whether on another level of significance – at a meta-meaning level as it were - such is meaningful or not is beside the point. The whole point is that your life makes sense for you, that my life makes sense for me, that X’s life makes sense for X or Y’s life makes sense for Y, not that your life or my life, or that of X or of Y makes sense to another. That’s what I mean when I use the phrase “another level of significance” or even coin the term “meta-meaning”, the possible meaning of meaning as it were. However, words are beginning to trip up over themselves here, as always happens when we try to come to terms with making sense of our own lives.

I often think that it is somewhere between the words in these books that I like to lose myself and again to find myself as it were. It is in this journeying, albeit at a secondary level, with the various authors that inspire me to make some little sense or meaning out of my own life that I can begin to get a sense of personal progress. In the novel Distance by Colin Thubron, the protagonist or even anti-hero – central character would perhaps be a better term – one Edward Sanders has lost two years of his life, his memory totally obliterated by an unknown trauma. The novel is literally a search for his true forgotten identity, for his real self. There is also a haunting memory of a woman who fades in and out of focus and also whom he is unable to name, and yet who carries a key to his identity. So, this thought-provoking novel seeks to map the human heart in its search for meaning. Hence it is a good companion for me on my two weeks’ journey or retreat into my own soul.

Night by Elie Wiesel, which I have reviewed at length in these pages some years back, is also a suitable companion for such a journey as it, too, is a book – a searing memoir in this case – of the journey into self-knowledge.  In fact it is an account of the journey into the hell of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in the final months of The Second World War. You need a strong constitution to read it, but it is so worthwhile because it is like a meditation on dying and death, told in the haunting voice of a fifteen year old boy who had to lie about his age to be spared by The Angel of Death himself, the infamous Dr Mengele. Somewhere between those tightly chiselled words – Wiesel pares his words down to the barest necessities where not a single word is redundant – we travel with Wiesel in a vain attempt to find some meaning in this hell of hells. Then it dawns on the reader, as it does on the writer, that the only meaning is in the telling, the very telling of this horrific and most gruesome tale: “...Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes...” (Op. cit., p. 34)

In these bleak words, few as they are in the shortened quotation above, we have a link with Friedrich Nietzsche whom we meet as a character in the wonderful novel When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom. This was the Nietzsche, who in the words of his great prophet Zarathustra proclaimed the death of God, or rather the death of the idea of the existence of a great Creator God behind this world of appearances. This novel tells us a most interesting and challenging story – imagined, indeed, as the two protagonists never met in their lives - of the meeting between Friedrich Nietzsche and Josef Breuer, one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Nietzsche engages in a series of consultations with the great Doctor, and so if you like this is the story of the psychoanalysis of Nietzsche. I was overwhelmed when I first came across this book on Amazon, because who could be so bold as to come up with such a topic for the story of a novel? The great and wonderful psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom could! And indeed he did, and wrote it wonderfully well with consummate historical detail, a witness to his pains-taking research. Their first encounter ranges over areas of theology and philosophy and self-knowledge. One part of their disquisition relates to what they think the truth is. We all know that famous quotation from the beginning one of Bacon’s essays where the author open’s with Pilate’s question to Jesus in the Praetorium as to what the truth was, but the Roman Governor refused to wait for the answer. Anyway, here is what Yalom has Nietzsche say as to what he believes the truth is or may be:

“It is not the truth that is holy, but the search for one’s own truth! Can there be a more sacred act than self-enquiry? My philosophical work, some say, is built on sand: my views change continually. But one of my granite sentences is: “Become who you are.” And how can one discover who and what one is without the truth?” (Op. cit., p. 68)
Storr’s book is a wonderful study of gurus or those who set themselves up as bearers of the sacred messages from God or the gods; those who maintain that they have been given sacred knowledge from the Divine; those whose mission it is to save their band of followers from hell fire and self-destruction and deliver them out of evil; those who have all the answers to life’s problems; in short, these are the appointed ones to show the rest of humanity the way to salvation. It’s a book I shall have to read several times as it is rich in observation and insightful into the character of those who set themselves up as gurus or prophets. I’m one with the late great Teacher (or Guru) Anthony de Mello, S.J. that the role of the real or true guru is to break the link with his disciple, to allow, as it were, the young bird to fly alone and independently. A real teacher or guru will never seek dependent disciples. He will want them to be free to go their own way. Some of the gurus recounted in Storr’s book were only interested in the question of power and having power over others. That’s what all sects are about – the wielding of power. Religions, uncoupled from real spirituality, become power-oriented all too quickly. As the saying goes, there’s nothing as bad as a bad religion, but a good religion with a true spiritual heart to it can lead its faithful to some form of self-knowledge and/or consolation.

The last book mentioned above is a short book in Italian called Afghanistan dove Dio viene solo per Piangere by Siba Shakib, (Edizioni Piemme, 2002, 2008). I bought it to improve my Italian, but the story itself is a heart-rending one of the misery of Afghani women in the wake of modern warfare and their suffering at the hands of their very own men. The title says it all – Afghanistan where God alone comes only to cry. The writer, Siba Shakib is an Iranian journalist who is documenting the lives of Afghani women in a Refugee camp.

Therefore, all of these books interweave their stories into my own soul-journey these two weeks of retreat in Southern Italy before I return to work on the 25th of August for another school year. In between reading these books, I find that my own personal reflections are sharpened to a degree I oftentimes find challenging, sometimes frightening, but always inspiring. They are like instruments in an orchestra blending their sounds into a great unity, which draws my own story in my own voice into the authentic embrace of their music. If there is a fitting adjective to describe each of these very different books, then I have just mentioned it here in the last sentence – AUTHENTIC – yes, that’s the word to sum them up.

The journey of the soul to know itself can only be that. AUTHENTIC.

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