Monday, September 26, 2011

The Art of Happiness 25

Running out of Steam
Church at Lusk, County Dublin

There are so many metaphors to describe overdoing something.  This is definitely my last post on the subject of happiness.  I'm definitely running out of steam on this topic or even "flogging a dead horse" to use an uglier metaphor.  Philosophically, we can ask the question as to whether the seeking of happiness per se is a worthwhile goal to have in life at all.  I have already mentioned in these pages that a lot of scholars think not.  One such is Ivor Browne, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD here in Ireland. Another is Stephen Hawking, one time the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, is also somewhat suspect of the same pursuit.  For him, as a scientist, human existence is in itself an indifferent accident of the universe, or quite simply an occurrence of pure luck - in fact, happiness has nothing at all to do with it.  Likewise, he has informed his biographers that he never ever countenanced self-pity for his physical condition as it was quite simple a matter of pure chance/probability that he had acquired Motor Neurone Disease.  Life is simply something one gets on with and does one's best to make sense of.  The question of happiness is simply irrelevant.

However, others would disagree with the two learned professors quoted in my introductory paragraph.  Scholars and Gurus (Teachers) like Dr Howard Cutler and His Holiness the Dalai Lama would disagree.  For them, happiness is a legitimate goal and can be acquired or achieved through a type of mental science as outlined in the meditation practices of Buddhism (as I have recounted in the previous 24 posts, practices described and explained by the Dalai Lama) and as corroborated by modern research in the human sciences, especially in psychology (as recounted by the psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Cutler).

Religion and Spirituality

Religion is a phenomenon common to all races.  Harvey G. Cox, who is amongst the most influential Christian theologians in the U.S.A, if not in the world, has written a wonderful book with a Buddhist philosopher and scholar, Daisaku Ikeda called The Persistence of Religion: Comparative Perspectives on Modern Spirituality (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., N.Y., 2009, see here), the title of which is at once patently true and which describes in detail the universal, primordial and persistent trust to religion within the human psyche, and certainly within the human social psyche.  There is much to be said, both positively and negatively for the role of religions in the world.  On the one hand, religions can and are a source of much good as exemplified in the lives of Rev Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa of Calcutta,  Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Dom Helder Camara to name but four wonderful humanitarian Christian believers in the more recent past.  On the other hand, religions are a source of much evil, too, as is witnessed in the great religious pogroms, and even genocides, over the centuries, in the Crusades of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy War (jihad) of Islam, the elaborate and disgusting tortures of the Inquisition right down to the terrorism motivated by a warped interpretation (?) of Islam as witnessed in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in NY, USA.

Socially, religions do give a cohesive meaning to life for any particular group of people.  I have many times expressed the thought that we are meaning-making and significance-seeking beings.  We must weave a mythology to make our lives meaningful, and collectively religion is one such great social myth which carries a collective meaning for us human beings.  Religions give a meaning to the whole human trajectory both historically and personally - that is, in respect to human origins and a personal meaning to an individual's life.  A great contemporary Irish journalist, Mr John Waters, maintains that the Catholic Church (as do all Churches indeed) gives meaning and significance to people's lives by the potency of its liturgical services of "hatching, matching and dispatching", i.e., their services and celebrations of birth (baptism), marriage and death (funerals). None of this can be denied.  However, humanists can and do organize wonderful funerals as I can personally witness to, having attended one, officiated by a friend who had lost his own son.

Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, April, 2011
However, I do feel that organised religions in the West, especially mainline Christian Churches, of which I have some experience, have lost their spiritual appeal for not alone the young people, but also for the older.  Our experience here in Ireland of the Roman Catholic Church has been mainly of the corrupt power of a hierarchy seeking to cover up the crimes of child sexual abuse by some of its priests.  Organised religion, like all organisations, tends to attract those who are hungry for power over others.  That is a major flaw in the religious thrust within humankind.  However, religions which manage to allow their spiritual centre to remain alive and vibrant normally manage to keep the power-brokers more at bay.  A Bishop-friend of mine, now retired and for the most part untarnished by corruption, always likes quoting self-deprecatingly and humbly the A.A. saying that "Religion is for those who fear Hell, whereas spirituality is for those who have been there!"  There is much wisdom in that quotation.

When the Dalai Lama speaks of religion in the book under discussion in these last twenty four posts, he speaks of it as a spiritual thrust within the human community, and never as a power-brokering hierarchy.  For him religion and spirituality are almost, if not totally, synonymous.  Indeed, here are his thoughts on prayer and the importance of religious practices.  I'll let the Dalai Lama speak for himself:

However, if you think seriously about the true meaning of spiritual practices, it has to do with the development and training of your mental state, attitudes, and psychological and emotional state and well-being.  You should not confine your understanding of spiritual practice to terms of some spiritual activities or verbal activities, like doing recitations of prayers and  chanting.  If your understanding of spiritual practice is limited to only these activities, then, of course, you will need a specific time, a separate allotted time to do your practice...However, if you understand spiritual practice in its true sense, then you can use all twenty-four hours of your day for your practice.  True spirituality is a mental attitude that you can practice (sic) at any time. (The Art of Happiness, pp., 251-2)
Through the teachings of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and many Buddhists have found a meaningful framework which enables them to endure and even transcend the pain and suffering that life sometimes brings.  In other words, his argument is that such religious practices (if one is of a religious turn of mind) or mental practices (if you are of a more agnostic leaning) can allow the adherent  and practitioner of them to achieve a much happier life.  Scientific research on the benefits of religious beliefs confirm, indeed, that their adherents are for the most part happier than those without such beliefs.  It is with that scientific statement that I shall conclude this rather long sequence of posts.

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