Saturday, March 26, 2011

Where is the Soul 10?


Bare-limbed tree, TCD, Sat, 19 March 2011
Where is the Soul?  That is the question with which I have entitled these last ten or so posts.  It is a question that has long intrigued me.  A few days back I received the news of the tragic death by suicide of a recent past pupil who shall remain anonymous here.  He was a student with us for about two years or so, and had changed school because of discipline problems in his previous school.  A quick Googling of his name gave me the funeral arrangements where I learned that he was mourned by parents, grandparents (he was around 22 years of age), his partner and young child.  Subsequently, I learned from some of his friends that baby number two was on the way.  The Internet also threw up a sad post by this young man to a chat forum on the BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) website seeking anger management counselling.  Where is the soul in all that tragic mess? 

Also a former acting Deputy Principal of our school recently gave a lovely valedictory retirement speech (he's only just 50) mentioning the fact that he had to get things in order for his wife and family, given that his cancer has now returned in two new tumors, even though he has had a hemipelvectomy for which he had to travel to London.  His was a complete hemipelvectomy, that is, the amputation of half of the pelvis and the leg on his left side. This type of procedure is also called transpelvic amputation.  That's the clinical details, but where oh where is the soul in all that?  In my fifth year mathematics class there are two young teenagers, barely seventeen years of age who have recently lost their fathers - only 44 and 53 respectively - one to cancer, the other to haemorrhage from an aneurysm.   Another young man in the same class is the father of a child to be born shortly and his own father has long deserted both him and his mother.  Where, oh where is the soul in all this?

Insights from a Poet

Now while this entry to this blog this Saturday evening is in no way religious, it is always spiritual in the most general meaning of that word.  In the last 13 years or so of my life I subscribe to one of the sayings from Alcoholics Anonymous that "Religion is for those who fear Hell while Spirituality is for those who have been there!"  There is a lot of wisdom in that aphorism.  I wish here to quote a poem in full from the pen of the great religious poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  This poem is called God's Grandeur:

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

In a sense this poem could be retitled "Soul's Grandeur," I feel, since I found Spirituality instead of Religion.  Anyway, the debate between Spirituality and Religion is for another day and for many posts on that very interesting topic.  The reason why I am retitling Gerard Manley Hopkins' wonderful poem is quite simply to answer my question as to where the soul might be found.  Certain words from the above poem which have kept rattling around in my mind for years are the following:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Commuter train passes thro' Clontarf Station, 19/03/2011
Life is often messy despite our human penchant for putting order on it.  We have been treading the soil of Mother Gaia for millions upon millions of years.  We have had many myths over that time to support us on onward progress and evolution.  But in that progress and evolution so much, so very much has had to die off and disappear so that we moderns could eventually come on the scene.  There are a lot of waste materials left in the wake of progress and evolution.  A lot of forgotten species and not-so-forgotten species have left the face of the earth over those years.  We have also mentioned so many times in these pages that our many myths, whether religious or scientific or literary or poetic, are just that sustaining myths that last for a certain time before being replaced by new and more appropriate ones.  That's why these words of Gerard Manley Hopkins appeal to me.  For millions upon millions of years we humans "have trod, have trod, have trod" and indeed over all those years all those inventions and all those technologies of all the various kinds have come to the fore, but so many of them have been destructive of humankind itself, and so "all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell."  Life is a messy as well as an ordered business.  There always must be room for Mess or Chaos!

Then, Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that we have become very much alienated from our origins in that very soil.  In the words of the Irish Gaelic File, Máirtín Ó Díreáin we have become "diphréamhaithe" or "uprooted" from the soil.  That's why these words from Hopkins rattle around continually in my mind: "the soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."

The answer to my question as to where the soul can be found is quite simply: in everything.  The soul is to be found out there in the world at large, in all our encounters with this or that event of life; with this or that technology; with this or that person; with or in this or that disease; with this or that fight; with this or that disagreement or argument; in this or that war; in this or that birth; in this or that dying; in this or that death and in the maternity wards as well as in the mortuaries of modern hospitals.  The Soul of Humankind is that very truth at its core which will not allow it to believe in half-truths or in light-weight fairy stories or light-weight myths.  No the Soul of Humankind will have humanity swallow the Whole Truth of its condition not Partial Truths.  Partial Truths are worse indeed that lies because they wear the masks of truth - they are mere pretend truths or imposters and so are very destructive.  The Soul will out just like The Truth will Out!  The Truth needs to be the Whole Truth not a mere Partial Truth.  Likewise the Soul needs to be a full Soul not a partial one.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where is the Soul 9?

The Beauty and Thrill of Decent Debate

Tree bark: Ardgillan Park, last Sunday
Good debate has little equal in humankind's intellectual life.  Even at school I enjoyed the cut and thrust of argument, reasoned argument, even if it arrived at no particularly practical conclusion, once it clarified ideas and thoughts.  And so I was involved in debates both in the Irish and English language.  At college also I was enthralled by the vibrancy of good debate, and delighted in public speaking, debating, asking questions, deepening and sharpening one's own questions and so on and so forth.  This type of thing is what makes Hillman's and Ventura's little book: We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And The World's Getting Worse (Harper, 1993) such a good read.

Ventura acknowledges this where he admits that "what started off as me interviewing you ended up as the two of us goading each other into deeper, or at least wilder thought.  Pushing it, pushing it, like two jazz musicians trading riffs back and forth." (Op.cit., p. 56)   I believe that our author's contentions here are true of all good debate, and I love his musical analogy.  Mostly Ventura clarifies Hillman's more abstract thoughts for this writer at least.  He repeats quite clearly that their joint contention, as a result of their goading debate, is that therapy's theoretical base has simply just not gone far enough, has not really connected with the world or the collectivity out there, and that without that connection it is incapable of treating the whole individual.  Individual psychology, even family psychology is only part of the problem, indeed part of the mystery of life.  What's needed is a collective psychology or a world psychology.  Now all this may seem somewhat fanciful.  However, that is the beauty and thrill of pushing one's thoughts, of pushing one's thinking, be that in mathematics, science, literature, psychology, philosophy and even in theology.  There has to be a place for lateral thinking or "thinking outside the box."

An idea I'd throw into the mix here is one I learned from the history of psychiatry and I believe I may have learned it from one of my favourite psychiatrists Dr Anthony Storr is that the idea or notion of individuality is one that has emerged only in the last 200 years or so, and that before that human beings felt themselves to be merely integral parts of a greater community.  So, in a sense capitalism with its emphasis on private property and more and more of it, along with as much trappings of individual wealth as possible thrives on this myth of individuality.  In this regard, then, modern psychotherapy with its emphasis on the interiority of the process bolsters up the myth.  Think about it!

Pathway, Argillan Park, last Sunday.
Ventura uses examples, images and metaphors from many disparate areas: music, computing, the arts in general, paintings, films, the sheer velocity of life (and one could aptly add Toppler's notion of the acceleration of change which astonishingly dates back to the late 1960s), and drama.  Ventura mentions Jung, obviously enough as being the first to take the concept of collective psychology seriously and refers explicitly to the concepts of the collective unconscious and that of synchronicity.

In short the tenor of all these thoughts above is that we must find better and better ways to think about the collective and further to learn to differentiate between collective and individual impulses and then trace and understand their interplay. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Where is the Soul 8?


Newly cut tree stump, Ardgillan Park, Skerries last Sunday
 Oftentimes we learn much of what something is by examining what it is not.   This was one of the traditional ways in theology of approaching the mystery of God.  Also called  Apophatic theology or Negative theology or Via Negativa, this is an approach to theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.  It stands in contrast with Cataphatic theology which attempts to say what God is in a more direct way.  A similar situation obtains with regards to the metaphor of soul.  When I speak of soul in these posts here I am referring to what may also be termed our inner or real self, our psyche, the key to our identity, all that is in us and of us that identifies me with all my hopes, loves and passions.  Now, I realize that sounds quite wordy, but once again when talking of soul and such spiritual matters words often fail.  Hence the Via Negativa is one good way of getting at what we might mean by soul, or what I, at least, may mean by it.

After some twenty-eight years of teaching the Gaelic language in an inner city school where the classes have become less academic in more recent years I began to find that my job was "soul-destroying."  In other words, I knew that I was coming to the end of a phase in my life where I had taught the subject at all levels of difficulty to all ages or years within the secondary system.  As the needs of the pupils changed, I had to change or literally throw in a job which was no longer offering me satisfaction at all.  I decided to retrain as a Special Needs Teacher and in that way I have re-energized myself, have lit once more the fires of my passion for teaching.  I find the whole effort of teaching now soul-enriching and certainly not soul-destroying.  I find that I am meeting the needs of the academically weaker pupil both at a pedagogical and personal needs level to a much greater degree than I had in the more recent years in main-stream classroom teaching.  In other words, I have learned over the years to cultivate soul work, that is to do something that will enrich my life and in so doing enrich that of others.

Soul-Making Activities

My soul-making activities include the following: writing this blog which is the direct result of my reading in the areas of philosophy, psychology, psychotherapy and literature and any book or film I find personally-enriching; reading; meditation exercises; going to films and the theatre; going to the gym (a new activity which I started to get down weight, but has now become a three times a week appointment which helps not alone my physical but also my mental well-being); going on walks in nature; attending a weekly language exchange in Italian and working in my garden.  All of these activities are about soul-making, about discovering the Soul or Self in silence and also in action and activities.  In this way I keep some "fire in my belly," "passion in my heart," "a spring in my step" to use several metaphors.  Another way of putting this is that in all of the above named ways I am keeping hope alive in my own heart or soul - I'm using the two words interchangeably here although I know there are different nuances in meaning.

Back to the Book
Flowers, beautiful, yet so fragile - Ardgillan, again last Sunday
Returning to Hillman and Ventura's shared book, I will now begin my reflections on the second section thereof, called The Letters: Life lived Backwards, Frontwards and Sideways.  Hillman's first letter to Ventura is long and has several interesting ideas in it.  Firstly, he reacquaints his correspondent with the idea of personal therapy of the inner journey or interior method of approach.  He realizes that he has perhaps been far too critical of it in his previous conversation with Ventura by here admitting that it plays an important role in the lives of many people.  In this regard he refers to several old literary friends of the present writer, namely the Romantics - Keats, Blake (definitely Romantic in Hillman's and my sense but classed as a Pre-Romantic in the English Lit books of my college days!) and D.H. Lawrence.  I'll let the man speak for himself here:

There is a place for the strength of character and subtlety of insight that the investigation of interiority produces.  I've called this psychological engagement "soul-making,"  a term and an idea taken from the Romantics.... A long-term, soul-focused, depth-analysis provides a discipline....that is truly a care of the soul.  There are individual patients and individual therapists whose work, whose love, whose calling is clearly in this area, but - and this is crucial - the calling does not have to be away from the world or rest upon a theory of self-enclosed individuals.  Soul-making and care of soul do not have to be identified with introversion and the spiritual denial of the world of matter, objects, things.  (Hillman and Ventura, op.cit., p 50)
From the Interior to the Exterior

What I feel the Hillman and Ventura are at is a sort of modern re-working of the Keatsian contention that the world is both figuratively and literally "a vale of Soul-making."  Keats continued on in that famous letter to which I have already referred in many previous posts that in this way "we find out the use of the world." See this link here:  In other words we make ourselves through our experiences, be those experiences good or bad.  Now this is quite painful to get the mind around, yet it is a truism.  Having plumbed the hell of despair just twice when I suffered two severe bouts of depression many years ago, one of which required a seven week period of hospitalization, I have literally "broken through" to another deeper level of meaning in my own life.  A new passion for life grew in me after the barren desert of a depression which I conquered with the help of the medical profession and the use of much complementary therapy.  Immediately after coming out of hospital I wrote a novel, unpublished and also a book of meditations - published - see above advertisement on the top right of this blog.  I also discovered the hobby of travel, especially to Italy, and also re-discovered all the other soul-making activities I listed in my opening paragraphs.

We make our soul by living life, by engaging with it, or as my father used to put it, "taking it by the scruff of the neck."  However, Hillman is a bit ambiguous in his treatment of the inner journey, the idea of interiority or "inner work" as being a road to soul-making.  I believe he is slightly understating the role of interiority, because I am a firm believer in both/and rather than either or.  I believe we need both interiority and exteriority in soul-making.  However, for me, he was not clear enough about his reservations about interior exploration.

However, I deeply agree with Hillman where he contends that everything in literally "grist to the mill" of soul-making.  Every single thing we actually do or have to do; what we have to experience, even tolerate; all those frustrations; all the boredom; all the study; all the pain; all the waiting and so on and so forth - everything makes our soul if only we have the right attitude.

Then, quite rightly he mentions the falsity of the Cartesian split between inner and outer, and yet he is slightly contradicting himself here, insofar as he seems to contend that the outer is more important than the inner.  This is possibly because his thoughts here are not as rationally and logically laid out as his more learned and scholarly books.  They are transcripts of conversations and copies of letters - way more informal.  He is right in his contention that Descartes's dualism between Body and Mind or Body and Soul split the reality of humanity, and in a way built upon the Christian-Platonic notion that the Body was just a husk or container which in itself was a lower and evil form of life while the Mind or Soul was purer and spiritual in nature.  Hillman adds that a modern reformulation of that split between Inner and Outer, Mind and Body is reflected in Introversion and Extraversion.

However, I like Hillman's and Ventura's ecological take on soul-making.  This appeals greatly to me in being a Green by political leaning.  I also love the whole notion of Gaia as put forward by James Lovelock, that we are creatures among other creatures living on and off the organism of the earth, that we are part and parcel of the earth, neither above nor below it, just a living (and thinking) part of the living (unthinking) earth.  I also love the fact that he asks the question of his correspondent as to what he thinks of the soul of the earth, the "anima mundi" He then mentions the great novelist D.H. Lawrence whom he quotes as saying that our the human's earthly task is to build his/her own "ship of death" or "ark of death."  This is in keeping with eastern philosophy and spirituality - especially Buddhism which recommends its adherents to meditate often on their own mortality.  I love the way Hillman reworks this Lawrentian thought into a more ecological format, namely that we must build a great ark of death for the world which we are killing with our pollution.  We are killing great Mother Earth or great Mother Gaia.

As he continues in this letter, I again feel that Hillman becomes quite self-contradictory in his contention that  "therapy - even the best deep therapy -contributes to the world's destruction."  This is in my opinion overstating the case.  That we must look way back to Plato and the pre-Socratics, back to Egypt and back further to the "tribal animistic psychologies that are not always mainly concerned with individualities, but with the soul of things ("environmental concerns," "deep ecology," as it is now called)..." (Ibid., p. 51)

Then, Hillman uses a strange concept, which seems somewhat ridiculous to this reader at least - admittedly I may not be able to get my head around his thoughts as they are somewhat deep - that the only way he can countenance the use of the word "individuation" today is if that term is applied to literally every single thing, material and non-material in this universe.  Get your head around that now, reader!  I simply cannot:

I am inviting us to think again of the morality of craft, the valuye of rhetoric, and the truth of the body's gestures.  Let's make things "well" - which means both well made and also healthy.  For this we need the individuating eye that can see what Wallace Stevens called "the poem in the heart of things," that innate imaginal essence I called the acorn... Michael, if we don't begin speculating and experimentating with extending individuation into the world of things, the idea remains captured by private capitalism, an enterprise of developing my own private property, "myself," my very own soul, my personal journey, and my locked-away journal... The Neoplatonic idea I am pursuing in this book and everywhere I go to talk cannot separate soul in me from the soul in others - others not being just people but environment... [He wants] a shifting of the idea of depth from the psychology of the inner person to a psychology of things, a depth psychology of extraversion.  (Ibid., p. 5)