Thursday, March 17, 2011

Somewhere between Beauty and Love - Where is the Soul 7?

It's all a Question of Balance Really!

Detail over the front door of St Patrick's Church, Rouen, June 2006
As one grows older the truth of the above title hits home more and more.  It would seem that the great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle got it right in his Nichomachean Ethics where he stated that every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency.  This is at once a strikingly simple and fiendishly difficult concept to grapple with, yet it is a worthwhile one to consider seriously. In a nutshell, Aristotle said that virtues are a point of moderation between two opposite vices. For instance, the virtue courage lies between the two vices of cowardice and recklessness. Recklessness is too much confidence and not enough fear, cowardice is too much fear and not enough confidence.  Courage, then, is just the right amount of both - right at the point of mederation (= mean) between both extremes. This theory can be expanded to most virtues and vices. Some other means that Aristotle laid out were temperance (or self-control), which lies between self-indulgence and a lack of sensitivity to your own needs, and modesty which is between bashfulness and vanity.

Likewise in our day to day living, this theory when put into practice can help us to have balance and indeed control in our lives.  It can also lead to a peace of mind, a growing self-acceptance - in short, it can and does lead to equanimity.  How many of us get our lives so out of balance that we are driven to excesses of one form or another: here we may list all the myriads of addictions that "human flesh is heir to" as well as all the pressures and stresses of modern living? We are out of balance when we put our careers about personal well-being, in short we place success above health.  Needless to say such an imbalance leads to all the various types of illnesses like heart-attacks, strokes and cancers of various types which all have stress as a major causal factor along with the obviously more physical and environmental factors.

We are severely out of balance when we place the Ego above the nurturing and growth demands of the Soul.  In Eastern Religions and Thought such severe imbalance goes by the name of dependence on or a clinging to things of the world (a clinging to impermanence) rather than a healthy reliance on things of the Spirit or of the Soul.

Beyond Clinging to Impermanence in the search for Soul:

Inside the Abbé Rouen, June, 2006
Clinging to the ideas (subtle lies really) of Success, Wealth, Promotion, even ideas of the importance Phof Relationships, Power and Control are all in a way transitory and illusory ideas.  What then of substance should we cling to?  Is anything worth clinging to, then, at all?  It would seem that peace of mind, equanimity, tranquillity, solitude, companionship and all the various virtues outlined by the good Aristotle and the many other philosophers, founders of the Great Religions and saints, and dare I say it, of scientists too, all these are worth acquiring (but definitely not clinging to in a negative way) in the sense that they build up our own Sense of Soul, our own Sense of Self  - in short, our true Well-Being.

And Love what is it at all, at all?

At the end of their long walk in Santa Monica on the Pacific Palisades Hillman and Ventura marvel at the nature of Love and Beauty.  I'll quote Hillman in full here as it is very appropriate and relevant, I feel:


You know, there's a feeling about a good day - it's slow, and very much like being with a lover.  Having a good moment at breakfast, tasting something - it has to do with beauty, this matter of love.  And I think all the work at personal relationships fucks that up.  That "work" is not aesthetic and sensuous, which is really what loive, for me, is about.  Aesthetic and sensuous, and a kind of joy.  Love doe not result from working at something.  So the therapeutic approach to love, of clearing up the relationship, may clear up communication disorders, expression inhibitions, insensitive habits, may even improve sex, but I don't think it releases loive; I don't think love can be worked at. (Hillman and Ventura, op.cit., p. 47)

And Ventura adds a very important comment to these words of his companion by pointing out that modern society has confused relationship with love and assumed that one automatically equals the other.  I have mentioned in these posts on a good number of occasions our silly assumption that we must be in a relationship with somebody (that is the pressure on us by society to pair off with one other significant person) to be happy.  Dr Anthony Storr hightlights this exact point in his wonderful little classic, Solitude, which I have commented on at large in this blog already - see this link: Solitude.  Therein and in the following blog entries on Storr's classic I argued the following:

"Storr finishes his first chapter in this delightful little book with a quotation from the great Dr John Bowlby whose wonderful work grew out of research he had done for the WHO on the mental health of homeless children. Bowlby argues well that “intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves,” but Storr adds a wonderful qualification to this obviously true statement by saying that such intimate attachments are “a hub... not necessarily the hub.” What has always impressed me about Storr is the wonderful perspective of balance we get in his books. And here he brings in the wonderful balance of solitude which I have described above and which I am experiencing here and now."

So while human relationships are very important to our development of persons they are not the only hub, the only central point of our well-being.  There are many others like our work and our hobbies and our creative pursuits which all go to form us in the round.  Also a year or so ago I discussed Hillman's 1997 book, The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, which was on the The New York Times Best Seller List that year. I see by my inscription on this book that I first read it back in February 1998.  You will find other of this learned gentleman's comments on the role of relationships in our personal development in those posts.  See here: Hillman and following posts.

There ends my comments on the transcript of their conversation during their walk along a small section of the Pacific Coast of California.   Part II are letters which the two authors later wrote to one another.  I shall begin my next post with that section.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dogged by the Human Condition - Where is the Soul 6?

Introduction: The Human Condition

Turtle in the Parc de Montsouris, Paris, June, 2006
One needs to be no philosopher to know the nature of the human condition.  We live in a world which we believe we can control, and yet as the recent case of the earthquake followed by the tsunami in Japan has shown all so very obviously, we are the victims of the randomness of natural disasters and sheer chance.  For all our hubris and for all the "ego" we possess which inspire us to believe that we are the arbiters of our own fate, the fragility of our little lives teaches us otherwise.  Philosophers and other scholars have a predilection for using the terms "contingent" and "contingency" to convey this sense of chance and randomness that belongs to life.  I remember once reading a biography of Stephen Hawking by John Gribbin and Michael White, both of whom as far as I remember, worked with this great theoretical physicist.  Hawking told these biographers that he remained very positive, despite his being a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) quite simply because it was irrational in the extreme to expect life to be fair, because it was not so at all.  As a physicist, mathematician and scientist, he believed in the randomness of things.  I may not be remembering correctly the exact terms used by the great scientist, but that was the gist or tenor of his statement.     An on-line dictionary tell;s us that contingency means:

1. Dependence on chance or on the fulfillment of a condition; uncertainty; fortuitousness, as in : "Nothing was left to contingency."
2. A contingent event; a chance, accident, or possibility conditional on something uncertain: He was prepared for every contingency.

3. Something incidental to a thing.

This on-line dictionary traces its etymology back to the 1560s and the meaning "a chance occurrence" to the 1610s. (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper) (See this link here:  Dictionary )

The French National Library, Paris, June, 2006
Contingency is of the very nature of life.  Everything we do and achieve is contingent on something else.  Our very well-being is contingent on the health of our parents, our geographic location, our economic situation and so on and so forth.  We are an extraordinary wonderful combination of nature, nurture and indeed culture.  There are many constraints that fall under one or other those three headings like the colour of our skin (which might lead to racism), being born with X, Y or Z disease, being Male or Female etc.  In short, this is what we mean by the human condition - we are contingent, fragile and mortal beings.  Developing the coping skills to chart our journey as safely as we possibly can through life is the most basic project we all undertake as human beings.  To achieve our own unique potential or to become an individuated human being in the language of Dr Carl Gustave Jung is perhaps a more middle class project or at least one of more financially secure persons.

Therapy and the Soul in the Light of Contingency:

Returning at this juncture to the musings of our two authors, James Hillman and Michael Ventura as they undertook a long walk in nature together - the transcript of which makes up the first chapter of the book: We've Had a Hundred years of Psychotherapy and the World's getting Worse (Harper, 1993) - we readily understand that they take the contingency of the human condition as axiomatic for any human being.  Hillman has a predilection for the word tragedy as he is steeped not alone in archetype psychology but also in Greek and Latin literature.   Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia held for five days in March, for which competition prominent tragedians usually submitted three tragedies and one satyr play each.  For Hillman as for these great early tragedians (and indeed for all subsequent tragedians, the greatest of whom was Shakespeare needless to say) life is full of suffering and the drama or tragedy shows how nobly the hero succumbs to the suffering fated to him.

Hillman stresses that we find our soul out there in the world by engaging with the "fate" or "tragedy" that life metes out to us as well as going inwards into the psyche.  He tells us that the pathos, the pathology of our lives is literally "that which can't be accepted, can't be changed, and won't go away." (Op. cit., p. 36)  He then tells Ventura that that's what we mean by human limitation, or what I have expressed above as the human condition, or in my introductory words as the contingency of life.  It is helpful when reading archetypal psychologists to appreciate that they speak very much in metaphors and symbols, so do not come to their work with a scientist's literalism.  This human condition of suffering, he says, metaphorically, comes from the Gods. (See ibid., p. 37)  He contends, again metaphorically, that the Gods visit us in our pathologies, that is in our various forms of sickness.  Then he tells Ventura that the greatest archetypal psychologist of them all, indeed the founding father of that kind of psychology, Carl Gustave Jung, had the motto "Called or not, the Gods will be present" carved in Latin over his front door. (See ibid., p. 37)

Hillman goes on to adumbrate an interesting understanding of the SELF and simply does not like - indeed he dismisses with a certain nonchalance - therapy's classic definition of it which comes from the Protestant and Oriental Traditions, that is, that the self is the internalization of the invisible God beyond.  However, he feels the SELF is THE INTERIORIZATION OF THE COMMUNITY.  He continues in this visionary vein:


And "others" would not just include other peopel, because community, as I see it, is something more ecological, or at least animistic.  A psychic field.  And if I'm not in a psychic field with others - with people, buildings, animals, trees - I am not.  So I wouldn't be, "I am because I think." (Cogito ergo sum, as Descartes said.)  It would be, as somebody said to me the other night, "I am because I party." (Convivo ergo sum.) (Ibid., p. 40) (Authors' italics)
When we are with others we become a little out of control as I flow into you and you flow into me and so there are inevitable surprises and the inevitable spontaneity which are more than likely nearer our true SELF than when we are alone. (This is an interesting thought, see ibid., p. 41)  This stste of being out of control or this spontaneity is in fact the community acting in me.

However self-as-community need not be a fascist reality like that espoused by Nazi Germany or a totalitarianism of the left like that of Communist Russia or Communist China or that of North Korea.  Let's listen to the visionary words of Hillman yet again.  For a psychologist they are very poetic:

I won't accept these simple opposites - either individual self in control or a totalitarian mindless mob.  This kind of fantasy keeps us afraid of community.  It locks us up inside our separate selves all alone and longing for connection.  In fact, the idea of surrendering to the fascist mob is a result of the separated self.  It's the old Apollonian ego, aloof and clear, panicked by the Dionysian flow... (Ibid., 44)
Hillman and Ventura go on to talk about the soul-destroying tyranny of the schedules we moderns have.  Some of us live out of our diaries.  I know of some few sad individuals for whom their whole identity is their job.  Both authors see this as one of the inevitable results of modern capitalism.  Sadly for this type of individual, the job becomes how the soul finds accomodation within their day.  There's not much time there for the Romanticism of dreams and stories or even for rest which is the gift of time off so that the soul can be nurtured.  The manic defense against depression is to keep extremely busy - and to be very irritated when interrupted.  This, Hillman, assures Ventura is the sign of the manic condition.

In fact, Hillman argues that it is quite possible that the depression we're doing our best to avoid is nothing other than a prolonged reaction to what we've being doing to the world - slowly but surely poisoning it and killing it off.  In other words, this repressed or denied depression is some sort of inner expression of the mourning and grieving we are not openly doing for our destruction of our lovely planet.  We have also lost our shame in relation to our destruction of the earth - an interesting an perspicacious point indeed.   Then he maintains something that I have long believed myself from personally hard-won experience, that is, that any major change is preceded by a breakdown.  After catastrophes money can no longer carry value.  How true that is!  Meditate and contemplate compassionately, then, on the situation of Japan and that must surely and inevitably be a major lesson for any of us.(See ibid., 45) 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

As Flies to Wanton Boys... where is the soul 5?

The Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan



Rescuers carry a body away in Shintona, Dan Chung for the Guardian
How can anyone write anything of consequence or import these days without mentioning the human catastrophe that has befallen Japan in the aftermath of the recent horrific earthquake and tsunami there?  Shakespeare's great tragedy King Lear comes to my mind - a friend and I attended a live telecast of that play starring the wonderful David Jocobi in the hero's role from the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London.  We attended the live satellite performance at a cinema in Swords, County Dublin.  Anyway, no words could be more appropriate than those of the Duke of Gloucester from that great tragedy, from which today's contribution to this blog takes its title. They are among perhaps the most desperate lines in that desperate play and they are contained in the Duke's speech that culminates yet another scene of abject cruelty and senseless brutality. For the kindness he has shown the disgraced King Lear on a stormy night, Gloucester has been blinded by two of the king's enemies, Lear's own daughter Regan and her husband.  I will quote these appropriate words from the Duke's lips here:

I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more
since.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport. (King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37)

And yet the tragedy Gloucester bemoans is infinitesimally smaller than that of Japan today.  However, the wonder and magic and quintessential nature of Shakespearean tragedy is that even in its sheer smallness in a numerical sense, yet it distills the heart of all human tragedy in its ability to move us to considering and meditating upon the sheer randomness of the human condition!

I have just viewed the latest video on the tragedy of Japan from The Guardian, UK, website which can be accessed here: The Guardian.  As of writing there are at least 10, 000 people dead, and the belief is that this is a very conservative estimate.  We have watched as Mother Earth or Gaia has literally cracked open and erupted.  The power of the forces of Nature is truly mammoth if I may mix metaphors here.  I have long subscribed to the notion that we are as it were creatures who live upon the organism of the Earth which James Lovelock names Gaia after the ancient Goddess of than wonderful, if at times paining and suffering planet.  Japan, being one of the foremost of industrialized nations and a country which one can truly say is almost the hub of technology, is now to a large extent brought to its knees by the power of nature.  If anything could put the present world economic crisis or recession or depression, call it what you will, into perspective and into context it must surely be this horrific earthquake and tsunami.  It would seem that the great dramatist, the old Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare summed up the human condition in the above quoted words from the Duke of Gloucester.  We are mere flies to wanton boys indeed.

As the crisis worsens we read the following headlines on the aforementioned news site:


  • Up to 10,000 feared dead in Miyagi prefecture alone
  • Cooling system fails at a second nuclear plant
  •  Japan PM: "worst crisis since WWII"
  • 190 people exposed to radiation
  • Original quake upgraded to magnitude 9 by Japanese authorities
  •  Over 250 aftershocks so far
A woman cries on the street in Shintona: Dan Chung for the Guardian
Please hit the following link for updates:  Guardian

However, these thoughts are written from a philosophical and more spiritual perspective here.  What I am getting at is a point I have made time and time again in these posts, viz., namely the sheer hubris of humankind to think that it is as it were the pinnacle of creation (as some religionists would have it) or the driver and author of continual progress (as a certain large enough percentage of reductionist and materialist scientists would have it).  We are merely, in the words of the great contemporary philosopher, John Gray mere "straw dogs."  I have commented in detail on his book by that name in these pages before and I heartily agree with his contentions therein.  In one post I wrote of the significance of our insignificance in the scheme of things here SP Significance

In another I wrote of our propensity to self-delusion in these words: : "Gray is telling us forcibly and clearly that we are creatures full of hubris, whose greatest flaw is our propensity for self-delusion.  We can convince ourselves of anything when our vanity and hubris is at stake." SP Wake Up Call

In yet another post I quoted the following words from Gray's wonderfully stimulating and highly provocative little classic: "The good life is not found in the dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies. We have been reared on religions and philosophies that deny the experience of tragedy. Can we imagine a life that is not founded on the consolations of action? Or are we too lax and coarse even to dream of living without them?" (John Gray, Straw Dogs (Granta, 2002) p. 194) SP Hubris

Now I do not wish to go too far over old ground here.  What I wish to point out is just that: that we as human beings have far outweighed and overestimated our importance in the scheme of things.  This is what true Buddhism and true and pure meditation is about: just that, learning to be in the moment; learning to accept the very significance of our insignificance and the insignificance of our significance in the scheme of things if I may bend and warp language out of all proportions here as I strain to express what I think I mean.

And so all our sturdiest of buildings, all our juggernauts, our vans and our cars, our little parks and arcades, our motorways and all the cars with little human beings like ants within them, all our wonderful hospitals and schools and universities can be washed away by indifferent mother nature, by indifferent and impersonal Mother Gaia.  Like Nietzsche, and against Ruskin, we have to admit that Mother Nature is neither Loving or Hateful, it's just Indifferent as it has absolutely no emotional content whatsoever.  However, we do like personifying it as a She and I, too, like to call indifferent nature Mother Gaia.  But that is just my mere poetic bent, my mere Romantic nature which more often than not gets the better of me.

And so to conclude this post I wish now to return to the book that I have been reading over the last several; posts, viz., We've Had a Hundred years of Psychotherapy and the World's getting Worse (Harper, 1993), a duet of a book between the archetype psychologist James Hillman and the journalist Michael Ventura.  They are singing a similar tune to John Gray in Straw Dogs.  They are literally in harmony, because the soul of humankind is to found out there amidst the tragedy of the living world, right in the midst of all the eartquakes and tsunamis and in the constant struggles of human beings to find their true identity.  There in the midst of the whole gamut of things from Good to Evil and all of the colours of the rainbow in between both these extremes, there, yes there lies the struggle for soul!

And so I have used the word "befallen" in my opening paragraph instead of "happened to" quite purposely and in keeping with both Gray's and Hillman's understanding of the need we human beings have within us to face the very tragedy of our own existence, that is the tragedy of our consciousness or awareness of our own contingency, mortality and significance/insignificance within the scheme of things.  I'll leave the final words so, to James Hillman:

I feel that these things occur [pain, suffering or evil is what Hillman has in mind here], and they are what the psyche wants or sends me.  What the Gods send me.  There's a lovely passage from Marcus Aurelius: "What I do I do always with the community in mind, what happens to me, what befalls me, comes from the Gods."  And befall is a very important word, because that's where the word case comes from: cadere, to fall.  And in German the word for a case is fall.  So what falls on you is what happens to you, is the origins of the word pathos too - what drops on you, what wounds you, what happens to you, what falls on you, how you fall, the way the dice fall.  (Op.cit., p.  36)  
Please note that the above pictures are as stated from the Guardian Newpaper's site and were taken by Dan Chung, more specifically from its blog on the on-going tragedy in Japan which is continually updated. Please hit the above links or this one here to get the latest news therefrom: Guardian Japan Blog.