Saturday, July 23, 2011

Spirituality 12: Massacre in Norway

When Evil is Unleashed

Utoya island - idyllic spot - scene of the horrific massacre in Norway
How does spirituality cope with evil, I ask myself, as I now read the on-line reports of the horrific massacre of innocents in Oslo, Norway and on the small and beautiful island of Utoya?  I don't know at all.  From this distance, it is perhaps difficult to understand the feelings of the relatives of the vctims, now 92 according to the 4 p.m. news on R.T.E., Radio one, who have perished at the unfeeling and indifferent hand of a deluded madman.  It is almost a sin to write the suspect's name here.  The ancient Jews deemed the name of God so sacred that they dared not write it.  Perhaps we should deem the name of this mass murderer too demonic to be named.  And yet as a rationalist and agnostic, I realise that after reading the heart-rending reports of some of the survivors from the idyllic island location, that my rationalism and agnosticism find it hard to get words of significance to carry the depth of the tragedy.  Religious language in the foregoing lines are, of course, should it be needed to be stated here at all, mere metaphor.

I shan't name the young perpetrator whose name and frighteningly handsome picture can be found on-line should the reader wish to find them.  However, that he described himself as a fundamentalist Christian only goes to show that religion has long been used as a cover for the horrific crimes of deluded souls.  Some scholar once remarked that there is nothing as bad as a bad religion.  How true.  How true!

The words of the great and wonderful philosopher Hannah Arendt come to my mind here.   She once proclaimed in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials of Hitler's henchmen, mass-murderers all, that essentially what we had there was an example of the banality of evil.  Take a look at the gaunt faces of those who stood trial and what one is faced with is an array of weak and pitiful faces who were eerily the authors and actors involved in perhaps the greatest genocide in the history of humankind.   Theirs are truly the banal and weak faces of evil. Arendt's work deals with the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, authority, and totalitarianism.  That individuals can come to believe that they should have power over others, and arrogate to themselves such power over the lives of others without the democratic authority of anyone, save their own deluded will, is in itself one of the greatest wrongs any of us can commit.  That a lone gunman and bomber can decide that he has the right to exercise the power of life and death through bomb and bullet over anyone is delusion in the extreme.

I have defined spirituality in these pages as the power to connect,  the power to forge connections with others and with the source of all life and being, whether that be a personal God or an objective impersonal scientific energy behind the universe.  What happened in Norway is the absolute opposite to spirituality, whatever that may be.  I have to avoid the temptation to use religious metaphor here in order to come up with some word to describe this opposition.  Here at the hands of this all too human and all too deluded gunman and bomber, we have all experienced the power or drive of the human will towards destruction, towards the lack of order, towards the break-down of all possible connections between humans, towards Chaos.  What one might call this phenomenon defies my imagination.  Religious imagination would speak of demonic possession which is metaphor and personification at best. 

Anonyminity of death - human blood in wake of bomb in Oslo

With Dr Sigmund Freud, one might say that here we have the Death Instinct gone mad.  I can understand the Death Instinct being in us as individuals and to its being directed towards the self and in so being directed ending up in suicide.  Indeed, I have often heard friends of mine remark after these, alarmingly all too common, mass-murder attacks by lone gunmen on innocent bystanders:  "Why did he (always he as far as I know, though I might be wrong here!) not turn the gun on himself in the first place and that would have be the end of it?"  Indeed, I even say this to myself now.  That this individual, that this mass-murderer, wishes to explain his actions to the police is an insult, a grave insult to humanity, to the humanity we humans have created over thousands of years of civilization which has resulted in that brilliant, wonderful and noble aspect we have adorned our animality with - our very own human culture.  All I can do is write these all too lame words which I pen in your honour now:

Millions upon millions of souls are with you, you the survivors of this lone gunman and bomber.  The writer of these words is just one lone voice among those millions upon millions.  We can never know your pain, can never experience your fear, your personal encounter with extinction.  The pictures we have viewed have said it all.  Youngsters, young adults, men and women, at a political camp sharing their dreams for the betterment of humankind.  It's well we all remember such feelings of youthful camaraderie, that we could be the shapers of a better future for all, that we are the sharers in a precious communion which could make a difference not alone to our own lives, but to that of others.  We feel for you, younger brothers and sisters in the shared dreams of humanity that is reaching out to forge connections on this small planet in the infinity of space.  We feel for you, younger brothers and sisters in our dreams for the betterment not alone of humankind but of all life, human, animal, vegetable and mineral in this small world of ours.  That your dreams could be so painfully shattered is a travesty, the work of a deluded soul.  Worse still must be the righteous anger that dwells in your hearts that  this deluded soul, this evil gunman grew up amongst you.  Worse still that such evil can wear such a human and handsome face.  Worse again that he brought to a halt the young lives of your friends who had such a promising future ahead of them. 

The great Dean of St Paul's Cathedral London John Donne (1572 - 1631) wrote in one of his famous sermons that "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We the citizens of the world are diminished by you loss, by your understandable anger and indeed our own.  All we can say is that we stand in solidarity with you in your pain.  The gunman may have murdered your friends, but he will never ever murder your ideas, your hopes and your dreams.  May the goodness that is at the base of the human heart inspire you to believe in your dreams again and to believe that Good will truly conquer all Evil.  You must believe this, as we all must, to give hope to future generations.  We stand shoulder to shoulder with you.  We carry you in our hearts.

Spirituality 11


I remember reading in some philosopher or other, perhaps St. Augustine, that time is the measure of change.  Going back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus used the metaphor of the river to speak of change thus: "One cannot step into the same river twice," or words to that effect.  In other words, what Heraclitus seems to be suggesting here, later interpretations notwithstanding, is that, in order for the river to remain the river, change must constantly be taking place. Thus, one may think of the Heraclitean model as parallel to that of a living organism, which, in order to remain alive, must constantly be changing. Then, of course, there is the Hegelian model of change which is essentially a dialectical model of change that is based on the interaction of opposing forces.  Back to the eternal balance of opposites which I mention constantly in these pages. One starts from a point of momentary stasis, called Thesis, which is subsequently countered by Antithesis.  This is a conflictual stage.  The eventual results of this conflict of opposites in a new Synthesis.  The new Synthesis will become a Thesis for the next cycle and so on and so forth.  No harm now in looking at what the ancient Chinese philosophers said on the question of change.  The Daoist school which is based on the philosophical work Dao De Jing, uses the metaphor of water as the ideal agent of change. Water, although soft and yielding, will eventually wear away stone.   We had a teacher at school who used always quip that "a constant drip wears a stone." Change in this model is to be natural, harmonious and steady, albeit imperceptible.

Having studied some little sociology at college many years ago, I was always taken with the writings and theories of Alvin Toffler. He maintained that change is not merely necessary to life - it is life. I remember having to read passages from his book Future Shock (1970) for class work in 1977.  The phrase that kept cropping up in that work was "the acceleration of change."  And remember that was written in 1970.  How prescient Toffler was.  (See Singularity Hypothesis ). Toffler is a radical genius and thinker and reading even a little of his radical lifestyle and thought is mind-blowing.  I can only admire a man who has the balls to say the following  “Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest. Society needs people who work in hospitals. Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.”  (See here: WIKI AT )

Trying to Change Others

Over the years I have come across a few individuals, thankfully a few, in positions of power who sought constantly to change others.  Not alone were they stressing themselves out, they were also causing unnecessary conflict for the ones they wished to change and for the organization in which they worked.  Some of these individuals did learn.  Others did not, and I believe their later ill-health was in most part attributable to that negative energy of deliberately trying to change or stymie others.  Spiritual wisdom has always pointed out that the only person one can truly change is oneself, and if you can do that, trying to change others dawns on one as being a pointless and fruitless effort.  With that in mind, we'll turn to a short story from Tony de Mello, S.J:


To a disciple who was forever complaining about others, the Master said,:

"If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people.  It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole earth."  (One Minute Wisdom, p. 41)

Spirituality 10

The Ego

Teach an tSolais, Árainn Mhór, Samhradh 2011
As I have explained many times before in these pages, one meaning of the word "Ego" was given by Sigmund Freud, its being one of the three constructs in his structural model of the psyche.  In that model the ego, or conscious self,  tries to mediate between the instinctual drives of the ID and the moral remonstrations of the Superego or conscience.  I have described this structural model of the psyche or soul or mind here: Freud's Structural Model.  As I reflect on this I am reminded that this structural model has a parallel story or even paradigm in Plato.  I wonder was it from there that the founder of psychoanalysis got his inspiration for his structural model.  Anyway be that as it may, Plato told the following story:

The Chariot Story or Allegory:

In a dialogue called Phaedrus, Plato uses the Chariot Allegory to explain his view of the human soul. He does this in the dialogue through the character of Socrates, who uses it in a discussion of the merit of Love as "divine madness".   We read therein about a brave Charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two winged horses: one of those horses is noble and of a highborn breed while the other is quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore, the driving is difficult and troublesome, and the Charioteer has to be made of stern stuff.  Now, in Plato's parable or allegory, The Charioteer represents intellect or reason, or the part of the soul that guides it to truth.  To put this in other words still, one horse represents the rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature (e.g., righteous indignation), while the other represents the soul's irrational passions, appetites, or concupiscent nature. The Charioteer directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, or pulling against one another.  He attempts to steer both into a sort of workable harmony so as to proceed towards enlightenment.  Needless to say, this is a very difficult task that requires the Charioteer's consummate skill and indeed courage at the reins.

In other words, we can see the parallel immediately with Freud's structural model of the psyche.  After all, psyche is the Greek word for mind or soul or animating principle of life.  Checking out the Greek etymology, we read that the basic meaning of the Greek word ψυχή (psūchê) is "life". Derived meanings included "spirit", "soul," "ghost", and ultimately "self" or today what we would call the "conscious personality."

Anyway, the obvious parallelism would be that the Charioteer corresponds to the Ego, while the winged horse that wishes to head towards the heavens, the rational, noble winged horse corresponds to the Superego while the impulsive, irrational one that wishes to rush towards the earth is the Id.

There is another parallel idea, I believe, or rather a parallel story in St John's Gospel, which I'm interpreting as purely metaphorical rather than literal one as is my wont, where the evangelist refers to the fact of Jesus' increasing in our lives while we ourselves (that is, our egos) decrease.  The background of this saying comes just after the opening of Jesus' public ministry.  The news of Jesus’ miracles and teachings was spreading like wildfire throughout Judea and Galilee, and John’s disciples wanted to know what he thought about this newcomer everyone was calling the Messiah.  (John 3:26)  John’s response was clear, concise and powerful.  He declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease!”  I interpret the Scriptures in a wholly metaphorical and non-literal way.  For me, they are merely literature written by human beings, but good literature at that.

Back to the matter at hand.  The Ego in the spirituality of the East corresponds to the following terms "self", "self-concept", "false self", "conceptual identity", or identification with individual existence.  The ego in this sense is our inauthentic self, the self which parades before the world with the various masks we wear given the particular situation we find ourselves in at any given time.  The ego may see itself as learned, knowing a lot, if not quite all, e.g., the pedant or expert who likes to let us all know how much he or she knows on X,.Y or Z subject. 

The ego may see itself as being powerful and in control, e.g., bosses who are bullies.  These are people in whom the Ego has literally over-controlled and reigned in both horses so tightly that the chariot is not moving in any rhythmic or meaningful sense that might allow of any real progress in its journey - to speak metaphorically, obviously.  So, in this case, the ego over-identifies itself with one mask or another, with one sub-personality or another, with one role or another, where the teacher, the doctor, the nurse, the professor never really comes out of role.  Such rigid identification of the soul with such ego states is the essence of inauthenticity and shows a severe lack of understanding of the importance of being true and congruent to the real self as opposed to the false self.

Concluding Story 

Today's story is all about over-identification of the self with the ego.  It is, in fact, the very first story we read in the wonderful little spiritual classic Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings (Penguin Books, 2000), edited by Paul Reps.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, A Japanese Master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself.

"It is overfull.  No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "You are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"  (Op. cit., p. 17)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spirituality 9

Beehive Hut, Ballyferriter, October, 2005
Humility: An Introduction

This is a word which features little in our modern lexicon.  Certainly, many of us Irish do not like the word at all because we have been been subjected to oppression of one type or another for hundreds of years.  I was born in 1958, well before the the"hubris" that defined the recent Celtic Tiger era, now long dead thank God.  A good friend of mine describes that Celtic Tiger era as a delayed unconscious national reaction to the Famine and all the years of loss and more loss that followed in its wake.  That educated guess may well be true.  For Irish people of my era "humility" is a dirty word associated with grovelling and tugging one's forelock or doffing one's cap to one's superiors.  In these days of equality and a new-found pride and self-confidence we can explore more easily the true meaning of humility. 

The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humilitas", a noun related to the adjective "humilis", which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", "from the earth", or "low", since it derives in turns from the word "humus (earth)".  This etymology really appeals to this writer, that a truly humble person is firmly grounded or earthed and truly authentic or aware of their intrinsic self-worth.  Hence, it is emphasized in the realm of religious practice and ethics where the notion is often made more precise .  I'm not totally convinced of the more negative take that can be given the word in some Christian circles, that is, the notion of self-abasement.  I more taken by the Buddhist take on it which links humility where it is closely associated with ultimate Emptiness (Shunyata) and non-self (Anatta) and has very close links with being free from suffering, vexations, and all illusions of self-deception.  Humility, along with compassion and wisdom are said to be the three qualities that characterize this state of enlightenment.  The Chan (Zen) Master Li Yuansong states that enlightenment can come only after humility – the wisdom of realizing one's own ignorance, insignificance, and lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.

Dalai Lama - essence of humility
I like the association with ignorance also, because in my mind it is an essential attitude to have when one is looking for the truth in any situation.  As a philosopher I think immediately of the principle of Socratic ignorance.  One of the best known sayings of Socrates is "I only know that I know nothing". The conventional interpretation of this remark is that Socrates' wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. He believed and constantly argued that wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better. The one thing he consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love", which he connected with the concept of "the love of wisdom", i.e., philosophy. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it.

Two Stories from de Mello

1. Humility

To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the Master said:

"If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else."

"I know.  An overwhelming passion for it."

"No.  An unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong."

(One Minute Wisdom, p. 78)

2. Philosophy

Tony de Mello, S.J.
Before the visitor embarked upon discipleship he wanted assurance from the Master.

"Can you teach me the goal of human life?"

"I cannot."

"Or at least its meaning?"

"I cannot."

"Can you indicate to me the nature of death and the life beyond the grave?"

"I cannot."

The visitor walked away in scorn.  The disciples were dismayed that their Master had been shown up in a poor light.  Said the Master soothingly:

"Of what use is it to comprehend life's nature and life's meaning if you have never tasted it?  I'd rather you ate your pudding than speculated on it."

(Op.cit., p. 43).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Spirituality 8

Tyre tracks, Donabate Beach,
The Spirituality of Journey

Journey is surely one of the most central metaphors in our lives.  In fact, it is a multi-layered metaphor at that.  On a simple chronological level our lives map out a simple linear graph starting at our birth and ending at our death.  Another layer refers to the unique journey each of us makes as regards to life's choices with respect to partners or family or career.  On a deeper level again, it refers to the spiritual journey we make in getting to know ourselves as a unique and unrepeatable person.  On another level again, on a spatial level we can travel from A to B.   In fact, we can travel anywhere we like in the world provided we have the wherewithal to do it, whether it be good health, money or contacts.

Journey is an age-old physical action which we humans have engaged in since our forefathers went out as cavemen to forage for their wives and families.  It quickly became a very important symbolic physical action in the religious lives of ancient humankind, an action which perdures to this very day.  In religions, the word is transformed into a closely associated one, laden with heavy religious overtones, viz., pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith. Many religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: the place of birth or death of founders or saints, or to the place of their "calling" or spiritual awakening, or of their connection (visual or verbal) with the divine, or to locations where miracles were performed or witnessed, or locations where a deity is said to live or be "housed," or any site that is seen to have special spiritual powers. Such sites may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim. In America, the term pilgrim is typically associated with an early colonial Protestant sect known for their strict rules of discipline.

Places of Pilgrimage

Sunset at Clontarf
In Ireland we have our own sacred places of pilgrimage.  The one that comes quickly to my mind, which I climbed once many years ago with both my brothers, is Croagh Patrick (Gaeilge: Cruach Phádraig), nicknamed the Reek,  that is a 764 metres (2,507 ft) tall mountain and an important site of pilgrimage in County Mayo, on the west coast of our country.  It is 8 kilometres (5 mi) from Westport, (Cathair na Mart) above the villages of Murrisk and Lecanvey. On "Reek Sunday", the last Sunday in July every year, over 15,000 pilgrims climb it.   As well as being an exhilarating climb, the view of the hunderds of little islands out in Clew Bay is uplifting to say the least.  It is a physically demanding climb, journey or pilgrimage which symbolically or metaphorically represents the inner spiritual struggles of our very lives.  5 June 2010 marked the first of 365 consecutive ascents by Croaghpatrick365 founder Matt Loughrey. (See this link here: Irishtimes )

Another close association with journey, or pilgrimage in my mind is The Canterbury Tales which I studied at school and later at college.  We had to commit the whole prologue to memory at secondary school and those Middle English words still rattle around in my mind -

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

A third association in my mind is that of Colin Thubron who is a brilliant travel writer as well as novelist.  He writes in such a way that the reader feels he/she is journeying with the author to the places where he goes.  One could say that one accompanies Thubron on his travels.  Also there is a depth in his travel books which move me and bring me into communion with a sensitive and wonderfully inspiring mind.  The book I read by him was Shadow of the Silk Road. That book recounts his 7,000-mile journey from China to the Mediterranean encompasses cultures that have obsessed his working life: Islam, China, the old Soviet Union, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey.

Sign at Howth Head, Dublin.
A de Mello Story on Journey (paradox)


"Is the path to enlightenment difficult or easy?"

"It is neither."

"Why not?"

"Because it isn't there?"

"Then how does one travel to the goal?"

"One doesn't.  This is a journey without distance.  Stop travelling and you arrive."  (One Minute Wisdom, p. 55)

Once again I am brought back to another literary association in my mind, those wonderful words from Thomas Sternes Eliot's (1888-1965) Little Gidding (Part IV of The Four Quartets) which I have quoted many times here, and the tenor of his words are similar to the message in de Mello's "arrival" story:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Path, Ardgillen Park, March, 2011
Again, another good association in my mind is the title of a lovely wee book, which I bought some years back, called Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn.   There is much wisdom in this koan-like title.  The real travelling is an internal travelling.  The real journey is an internal journey.  The real pilgrimage is an internal pilgrimage.  I have a workplace acquaintance, who is now making his death journey as he is suffering from terminal cancer - which luckily is in some sort of remission at the moment - and he cannot accept it.  He is making journeys here and there to this and that country, more in a desperate bid to avoid the reality of facing dying or death.  His journeying is all too external rather than being internal.  I wish him the best in his attempting to come to terms with his final journey.  I won't say too much more here as I might identify him, which I should never wish to do.  I merely mention this case to illustrate the difference in levels between inward and outward journeys.

Finally, it has always struck me, since I suffer from clinical depression, that the same thing can be said about the weather.  External weather - be it good, bad or indifferent - is inconsequential really because it is one's internal weather, the mental weather if you wish, that truly matters.

As we say in the Gaeilge, "Go dté tú slán ar an mbóthar atá romhat!" "May you travel safely on the road of life before you!"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Spirituality 7

Paradox and Spirituality

Tyre tracks in the sand on the beach in Squillace, April, 2011
 A paradox is a seemingly true statement that leads to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.  The example our erstwhile teacher used to illustrate paradox in literature was the following line from one of Wordsworth's poems which reads "The Child is father of the Man."  It comes from the wonderfully short (nine lines only) lyric called simply "My heart leaps up when I behold," the first line of the poem, written 1802. 

Paradoxes occur in logic, literature, philosophy, morality and ethics.  The WIKI gives the following examples of paradox in literature:

Literary or rhetorical paradoxes abound in the works of Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton; other literature deals with paradox of situation. Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, and Borges, for instance, are all concerned with episodes and narratives designed around paradoxes. One of literature's arguably most famous paradoxes is the Miltonic narrator's statement in Book One of 'Paradise Lost', that the fires of hell emit 'no light, but darkness visible.' Statements such as Wilde's "I can resist anything except temptation", Chesterton's "Spies do not look like spies"[5] and Polonius' observation in Hamlet that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't" [4] are examples of rhetorical paradox.  (See Paradox )

Spirituality, or rather stories that work to illustrate what spirituality entails, often use paradox.  For example in one of de Mello's stories he has his Master tell an enquirer that "Eternal Life is now."  On the surface or literal level, as a statement of fact, the equating of the nowness of this instant with eternity which we might imagine as something that continues without end, rather like Infinity seems nothing short of an obvious contradiction.  However, on a deeper more metaphorical and spiritual level, we know that the paradox is strangely true.  In the same story the Master accuses the questioner of clinging to the past which he tells him is long dead and must be let go of.  Later in the same book, the Master answers another disciple's question about how we relate to God by saying "Not one. Not two."  On hearing the disciple's call for explanation of this paradox, the Master rejoins:

"The sun and its light, the ocean and the fish, the singer and the song - not one.  Not two."  (One Minute Wisdom, p. 33).

I also rather like the following paradoxical take on being a Guru, a Teacher, a Master or a Spiritual Leader - indeed a leader or teacher of any type.  The story goes as follows:


Self, Lungomare di Caulonia, April, 2011
"May I become your disciple?"

"You are only a disciple because your eyes are closed.  The day you open them you will see that there is nothing you can learn from me or anyone."

"What then is a Master for?"

"To make you see the uselessness of having one!"

Sheer paradox.  At school we had a teacher who used always lament, "There are none so blind as those who fail to see!" (Ibid., p. 45)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Spirituality 6

And Happiness, what is that at all, at all?

Spring peace - Malahide Estuary, March 2011
This title above is a age-old question.  When I was young I used to think that the goal of life was to be happy, but I never set about defining what happiness was for me.  Nowadays, I don't even consider happiness, because it is such an elusive and mercurial kind of concept to define, as even one of my goals in life.  Why?

Well, let's start by asking what is happiness anyway?  I shall just brainstorm responses to that question in bullet points below as a way into answering this important question:

  • a healthy mind in a healthy body
  • long and healthy life
  • being a success career-wise
  • getting an education - though the level will vary according to any individual's ideal of what a good education is.
  • enjoying one's rights fully - as in the UN declaration of human rights.
  • exercising one duties which correspond to each and every right we are entitled to.  It gives one a good feeling to know that one is just and honourable in one's actions to society and to others.
  • fulfilling the tenets of the various religions for those who belong to them.
  • finding a partner, settling down and raising a family.
  • your health is your wealth.
  • peace of mind, being able to live with oneself and being able to sleep with an easy conscience.
  • being enlightened, aware, awake.
You, dear reader, could add to this list.  There are as many definitions, all descriptive of course, of what happiness is, and this in itself renders it quite a useless concept in the first place.  In other words happiness as defined in the above bullet points is a very relative thing anyway.  It is relative on many levels, too.  Firstly, it is relative from person to person as people differ in their opinions.  Secondly, it is relative over time as one's body does not, and indeed cannot, remain healthy all the time as ageing and dying are intrinsic to human existence, marriages break up, people hurt, injure and even murder others.  Thirdly, it is relative insofar as the individual can and does change his/her view over time.

Here is what the psychiatrist Dr. Ivor Browne has to say on happiness in an interview with the Irish philosopher, Stephen J. Costello, when the latter asked him whether he was happy or not at this stage of his life:

No, I don't think so. As John McGahern said, "If there is a heaven, there aren't any writers in it."  I'm probably more contented than at any other period of my life, but I don't think this is a situation of happiness, nor do I think it is particularly important.  That's where we have gone wrong now, that we are searching for it.  This need to be happy is an absurd notion.! (The Irish Soul In Dialogue (The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2001, p. 29)
Ivor Browne is not the first person I have heard in my life say the above.  It's rather a thoughtless position for anyone of us to say something like, "the goal of my life is to be happy" without giving due attention to what we mean by the statement in the first place.  A good philosopher will ask the question:  "Why should one want to be happy in the first place?"  Then, the obvious question, "What is happiness anyway?" will most definitely have to be asked and then answered.

What are my personal goals in life?  Certainly not happiness.  A central goal for me would be to grow in self-knowledge (of the bad points as well as the good), to become more personally integrated, more individuated (Carl G. Jungmore balanced in life, to grow ever less disturbed by outside events, that is by events that are beyond my control, to grow ever more accepting of things I can do absolutely nothing about like the processes of ageing and dying - meditation on these last two are central to Tibetan Buddhism, and more than likely to all types of Buddhism.  And paradoxically, this is in no sense a morbid or morose thing to do.  In fact it is quite an objective and liberating observation that this is the way things are - they grow and wither and die, and then the cycle starts over and over again.  And we humans are not beyond nature - we are part of nature!!  To grow dependent on or to cling to the elusive and passing things of life is to be in denial of the transitory nature of things.  Hence meditation is all about learning to stop clinging to our illusions - stop clinging to Maya.  I will quote in full what the WIKI says here as I believe it is succinctly and wonderfully put:

Maya (Sanskrit माया māyāa), in Indian religions, has multiple meanings, erroneously quoted as "illusion", centered on the fact that we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by us. Maya is the principal deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe. For some mystics, this manifestation is real. Each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternity, is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean. The goal of enlightenment is to understand this — more precisely, to experience this: to see intuitively that the distinction between the self and the Universe is a false dichotomy. The distinction between consciousness and physical matter, between mind and body (refer bodymind), is the result of an unenlightened perspective. (See this link here: Maya_(illusion) )

A de Mello Story:


"I am in desperate need of help - or I'll go crazy.  We're living in a single room, my wife, my children and my in-laws.  So our nerves are on edge, we yell and scream at one another.  The room is hell."

"Do you promise to do whatever I tell you?" said the Master gravely.

"I swear I shall do anything."

"Very well, how many animals do you have?"

"A cow, a goat and six chickens."

"Take them all into the room with you.  Then come back after a week."

The disciple was appalled.  But he had promised to obey!  So he took the animals in.  A week later he came back, a pitiable figure, moaning

"I'm a nervous wreck.  The dirt!  The stench!  The noise!  We're all on the verge of madness!"

"Go back," said the Master, "and put the animals out."

The man ran all the way home.  And came back the following day, his eyes sparkling with joy.

"How sweet life is!  The animals are out.  The home is paradise - so quiet and clean and roomy!"

(See One Minute Silence, Anthony de Mello, Anand, India, 1985, 1990, p. 23)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spirituality 5

Philosophical Prolegomenon

(i) Certainty

Mallard ducks, Malahide Estuary, March, 2011
Certainty, like clarity, is a double-edged sword.  What are the things in life that I am certain of?  I'm certain that I was born, that I am living in this moment and typing these words on the screen of my PC.  I am also certain that I am ageing and going to die, that the night will fall around 10 p.m. or so tonight and darkness will cover the face of the earth in this area of the world, and that day will rise with the sun around 6. A.M. or so.  This phenomenon has been happening for millions upon millions of years, so it is very unlikely that this will cease.  Many of the things we are certain of, we simply can not prove or demonstrate.  As John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) argued that people believe things on faith and trust in others and that they also believe as true the knowledge they have been taught by others - otherwise they should literally do and learn nothing.  Indeed, he would argue that we don't have to prove these things, that it is normal and human to accept them on faith.

(ii) Clarity versus Unclarity

In 1994, in my S.T. L. thesis I wrote the following with respect to clarity:

The first point that strikes a careful reader is Newman's perception of the sheer difficulty in coming up with an adequate philosophy of knowledge or epistemology.  In a letter of 1840 he writes: 'the human mind in its present state is unequal to its own powers of apprehension; it embraces more than it can master.  I think we ought to set out on our enquiries, I am sure we shall end them, with this conviction.'  Ward quotes the first sentence of this quotation quite often in his lectures as being Newman's starting point for his theory of knowledge.

In one of the Oxford University Sermons (preached in 1839) Newman recognises the ineffable mystery of God and seems somewhat pessimistic about fathoming that mystery by any human method: 'Who shall give method to what is infinitely complex and measure to the unfathomable.'  In approaching mystery one advances tentatively; the method of approach being often indirect and circuitous.  If Camus sought clarity and ended up in the abyss of absurdity and despair because he could find none, Newman was deeply conscious of 'that lack of clarity that is part of our human condition.'  (Faith and Theological Method in the Works of John Henry Newman, unpublished STL thesis, Milltown, 1994, pp. 46-47)
Long before I wrote the above thesis I had read much of Albert Camus' writings and philosophy under the guiding hand of Fr. Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil., a brilliant and inspiring lecturer.  I learned the value of reading widely from this great scholar and of questioning radically one's presuppositions.  Camus’ life and work were dominated by the juxtaposition of an indomitable will towards happiness and justice on one hand and the indifference and hostility of the world on the other hand. That juxtaposition in the concreteness of one's everyday life constitutes the absurd.

Camus’ longing for clarity to which I alluded in my thesis is to be found in all his work, but most especially in The Myth of Sisyphus.  In fact it can also be cogently argued that most of Camus’ work is a development of the themes dealt with in that particular book and of the problems that arose from them.  As one reads this philosopher one learns quickly that the absurd is a disproportion or conflict between our expectations or ideals and reality. In particular it is the confrontation between our longing or nostalgia for order, meaning, and clarity on the one hand with the chaos, confusion, and irrationality of the world on the other hand; between the human longing for happiness and the evil in the world. The absurd is not in man alone nor in the world alone, but only in the juxtaposition of the two: “The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrationality and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” (The Myth of Sisyphus)

What can we know at all?

It is widely accepted that we can know what phenomena are through our senses.  That is the very meaning of the word "phenomenon", which refers to anything that appears to, or is an object of, the senses.  However, we are very aware today that the apparatus for perceiving that I use (i.e., my brain or mind) is limited and finite and subject to my own distortions.  How then can I "know" the actual thing itself?  This led the great philosopher Immanuel Kant to come up with the concept of noumenon (or at least resurrect the concept from antiquity).  The idea of noumenon is defined as a posited object or event that is known (if at all) without the use of the senses.  The following quotation from the WIKI is clearly and succinctly put:

Modern philosophy has generally denied the possibility of knowledge independent of the senses, and Immanuel Kant gave this point of view its classical version, saying that the noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable to humans. In Kantian philosophy the unknowable noumenon is often linked to the unknowable "thing-in-itself" (Ding an sich), although how to characterize the nature of the relationship is a question yet open to some controversy. (See this link: Noumenon )
Many accounts of Kant's philosophy treat "noumenon" and "thing-in-itself" as synonymous, and there is textual evidence for this relationship. However, Stephen Palmquist (b. 1957, expert on Kant, philosophy of religion and political philosophy in Hong Kong) holds that "noumenon" and "thing-in-itself" are only loosely synonymous in as much as they represent the same thing but viewed from two different perspectives. However, such moot, if interesting points, need not delay us here

Today's Wake-Up Story from de Mello

Malahide Estuary, March, 2011
You are probably saying to yourself, and with great justification, what has all the foregoing to do with spirituality.  Well, a lot, I believe, because the Eastern way of looking at reality and concentrating on, or observing the actual phenomenon or thing that appears to our senses cuts through a lot of the above Western style of thinking.  As one schooled in the Philosophy and Theology of the West, it is very hard for me to slough it off because I find it rivetingly interesting.  Once again, I believe that these two ways of looking at things have to be taken together in a healthy tension of opposites as I have been arguing for in these posts over the last six years.  In the story here, de Mello is asking us to wake up and just look at the thing itself, the phenomenon, not the imperceptible thing-in-itself:


"Don't look for God," the Master said, "Just look - and all will be revealed."

"But how is one to look?"

"Each time you look at anything, see only what there is and nothing else."

The disciples were bewildered, so that Master made it simpler:  "For instance: When you look at the moon, see the moon and nothing else."

"What else could one see except the moon when one looks at the moon?"

"A hungry person could see a ball of cheese.  A lover, the face of his beloved."