Thursday, February 02, 2012

Getting it Together

Falling Apart:

If there is one outstanding negative thing we humans experience at various stages during our lives it has to be the feeling of fragmentation, the feeling that our world is falling apart.  This is indeed a terrible place to be, and indeed many of us have been in that place and have got the T-shirt as the cliché has it.  At school I run two self-help groups, one under the auspices of that wonderful self-help registered charity called Rainbows and the other a social/encounter group that discusses issues around anger and self-esteem with a group of six sixteen year olds.  Rainbows is a registered charity and it offers a peer-support programme to assist children, young men and women and adults who are grieving a death, a separatation or any other painful transition in life.  Rainbows Ireland can be accessed here.  As regards falling apart, I'm reminded always of W.B. Yeats' (1865-1939) wonderful lines from his poem The Second Coming, which can be read in full here.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

All in a Day's Work

I work in an ASD unit or class in a Secondary School here in Ireland.  I spend about half my time there and the other half teaching Mathematics and Irish to weaker students in the mainstream school.  All these students vary in their degrees of functioning.  Some function very well despite their disabilities, while others function less well.  Today was one of those days when three of the ASD boys had what we term "melt downs," that is when they literally cannot function at all in any type of acceptable way behaviour-wise.  At these times they have to be taken out of the mainstream class, where they have been included with the assistance of an SNA or what we term here in Ireland a Special Needs Assistant.  They are then brought back to our ASD unit where they can chill out or calm down assisted by either myself or one of the other three SEN teachers and/or SNAs.  Sometimes - on the very rare occasion - they have to be taken home because they have become so disruptive that they are impeding the learning of the other boys, or even making them uneasy, anxious or upset.  As I've said, such action is a very rare occurrence indeed.  However, we are functioning at the moment in cramped facilities and are awaiting the building of a new purpose-built unit which comprises three classrooms, kitchen facilities, shower and sensory room next year.  With this in place, "melt-downs" can be both prevented, or at least diminished in a more pupil-friendly and sensory-kind environment.  Hopefully cut-backs will not prevent our fully approved extension.

I also do a certain small amount of counselling/therapy with the boys as I have done some two years of training in that field, successfully passed all exams therein but have chosen not to complete that professional course option as I have moved into Special Education instead.  Currently I am pursuing an M.A. in Human Development which is exceedingly enjoyable, rewarding and personally fulfilling as well as being helpful in my job.  Anyway, some examples of the issues young adolescent men - outside the ASD unit and in mainstream classes - have come to me with just in the past three or so weeks are: depression as the result of the suicide of a stepbrother; anger over being abandoned by a father early in life; having a baby at the age of seventeen; sexuality issues and problems related to be fostered.  There is also the general issue of anxiety especially among the ASD pupils in my care.  The second group that I have alluded to above is a truly interesting one as I have a group of 6 - the optimal number for working with groups - three ASD pupils, two with ADHD and one with very low self-esteem.  They are a sort of self-help group guided and facilitated by me.  They share how they are feeling about school, reflect on their week, listen to one another - at a deep level, I might add - affirm each other, get issues "off their chest" and, in general try to learn coping skills and more appropriate social skills.

Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again

There is no easy solution to complex problems and issues.  None of us can do anymore than listen.  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the only one with a possible solution to our problems is ourselves, with the help of others of course.  Humpty Dumpty cannot be restored to his original shape.  However, all the wisdom of the great religions and of the literatures and sciences of all cultures teaches us that somehow all is never lost - if Humpty Dumpty cannot be restored to his pristine condition at least he can be reshaped and refashioned to a greater or even lesser extent.  In the hard-nosed, harsh world of fact miracles don't happen and cures are rare, but healing is not alone possible, but entirely assured if we face into our problems with an openness to the care shown us by others, an acceptance of both medical science, the healing power of the imagination and a true cherishing of our own vulnerability.

Approaching the Still Point

I have spoken in my opening paragraph of things falling apart, of the centre which somehow cannot hold in the words of our great Irish national Nobel Laureate poet, W.B. Yeats.  In this final paragraph I wish to talk about the Still Point of our being where I believe the centre does hold - indeed where it holds very well - where we approach an integrated self.  However, please note I did say where we approach integration.  Probably we never get to the fullness of integration, as that is surely a life-long journey or task, possible accomplished solely on or at the time of our death.  All of my favourite authors in the area of psychology/psychiatry and self-help speak about integration (Dr. Anthony Storr) or in terms of individuation (Dr. Carl Gustave Jung), self-actualization (Goldstein, Maslow and Rogers) or self-realisation (Buddhism and Hinduism).  Basically all these terms, and others, mean pretty much the same thing, namely getting one's self together, pulling as it were the fragments of the self into some shape, into a shape of our very own making.  Indeed it is a self-shaping as it were.  Indeed, most therapies are all about that, allowing the client to put a shape or pattern on his or her Self.  Narrative Therapy, initially developed during the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Australian Michael White and his friend and colleague, David Epston, of New Zealand is a therapy based on encouraging the client to fashion their real Self through story, through filling in any painful or ugly gaps with creative but authentic new interpretations.

Using Meditation to Approach the Still Point

It was not by chance that I chose Still Point for the title of my blog.  It is a term with which I have long been enchanted and transfixed.  This is a term that means in a sense the point or hub about which the very wheel of the universe rolls if I may stretch a metaphor to its painful limit here.  I have also said that meditation will at most help us approach that Still Point, nearer and ever nearer, but perhaps without ever fully getting there rather like the asymptotes on an inverse algebraic function.  A wise old Jesuit always used say in his lectures in Milltown many years ago - "we approach this mystery asymptotically, gentleman, asymptotically."  When we sit and meditate we invite the mind to concentrate on or pay attention to the breath of life, to enter into its most inward sanctuary, to sit there in silence and ever so slowly and asymptotically, with regular and sustained practice, enter a space within the self which invites the Still Point in, even momentarily and fleetingly.

The centre will hold and hold well.  The Still Point is an horizon inviting us ever onward in its direction.  When we meditate the universe is alive within us.

Monday, January 30, 2012

And Happiness, what's that at all, at all?

I have dealt with the question of happiness at some length in these posts before.  However, these reflections here were provoked by a course on human well-being I am studying in recent weeks for an M.A. in Human Development.  Our lecturer showed us a short documentary film which a friend of his had made, and it consisted of a series of interviews with all types of people across the racial, the social, the sexual, the professional and indeed across the age divide at locations here in Ireland.  They were simply asked two questions (i) What they thought happiness is and (ii) could they remember any occasion on which they were really happy.  The interviewer/producer/cameraman (the one and the same person) just waited in accepting silence, rather like a counsellor, until the respondent answered.  This meant there was simply no leading of the interviewee in any shape or form.

Needless to say, the answers were as unique and individual as the interviewees.  Some equated happiness with financial and/or professional success, but these respondents were few indeed.  Most saw it in terms of values, especially with respect to relationships with others, that is, a happy marriage, a good mutual relationship, a good partnership etc.  There were some few individuals who saw happiness as a matter of self-awareness and self-acceptance.  These were few in number, though they comprised a solid minority.  For these respondents, happiness, then, equated to some understanding of authenticity, of being true to oneself.  Indeed, it was interesting for this viewer of the film that none of the interviewees gave the stock answers one might assume would be given, e.g., one elderly lady, obviously a religious sister, spoke about how once she had been in love before she entered religious life and that this equated with a profound experience of happiness equal to that of her profession of religious vows. Two drag queens, who were also interviewed, acknowledged that only when they fully accepted their real selves as they actually were did they really experience happiness.  I cite these two examples as an illustration of how broad a canvass the producer of the short film researched for his project. 

I have written some 25 posts on the art of happiness which you can review, if needs must, here.  These posts are a reflection on the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler, with various personal observations thrown in.  

So, then, what do you think happiness is?  On what past occasions were you really and truly happy?  I invite the reader of this post to answer those two questions for himself or herself before preceding further with these words here.

My Attempt at Answering these Questions:

When I was studying theology some thirty years ago I was quite taken with the "via negativa" approach to the mystery of God.  This was or is essentially a way of describing something by saying what it is not.  In theology the "via negativa" is also known as Apophatic Theology This tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or the conditioned role- playing and learned defensive behaviour of the outer man.  Consequently, this approach did not feature greatly, if at all, in Western theology, finding most of its adherents in the Eastern traditions of Christianity.  The Western mind preferred what is called a Cataphatic approach(sometimes spelled kataphatic) to theology, that is, Western theologians preferred expressing their insights into their relationships with or thoughts and reflections on  God or the divine through positive terminology.  Either method used alone could be seen as one-sided.  Good theologians would always insist on both approaches being used as one balanced the other out.  I find that with attempting to define what I mean by happiness that using an apophatic approach firstly might be no little help in attempting to reach an understanding of what happiness could possibly be.

What Happiness is Not

I am reminded of the song Nobody Knows by the great Irish Singer-Songwriter, Paul Brady, the chorus of which goes:

Nobody knows why Elvis threw it all away
Nobody knows what Ruby had to hide
Nobody knows why some of us get broken hearts
And some of us find a world that’s clear and bright
You could be packed up and ready
Knowing exactly where to go
How come you miss the connection?
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows.

These words only go to convince us, that is if we need further convincing despite the evidence of our own eyes, that wealth does not necessarily bring us happiness.  The late great historian Rev. Prof. F.X. Martin, with whom I lived in community while a student religious, way back in a former life, used often quip: "Money won't bring you happiness, but it will make you happier in your misery."  I remember his quipping that at table, the only time one would meet that busy gentleman, as he was always lecturing or studying or writing the next article or book. 

There are legions of examples of rich and famous people who were obviously unhappy e.g., Elvis Presley, Marlyn Monroe, James Deane and all those who belonged to the famous 27 Club:  blues singer and musician Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin,  Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and more recently Amy Winehouse, have contributed to this concept of the notional club.  These were all famous and rich people, but obviously very unhappy in their lives.  Whatever happiness is, therefore, it cannot be brought about by increasing either wealth or fame exponentially, or even in a relatively slowly increasing curve.

Likewise, happiness cannot be improved purposely by increasinging the number of professional qualifications one has, nor the number of promotions one has achieved in one's profession.  Psychology shows us all too clearly that habituation is a strong factor in all achievements across the board.  By habituation psychologists mean the relative quickness with which we begin to take for granted whatever we have achieved.  In other words once one rung of the ladder has been ascended, that rung then becomes another bottom rung.

In a sense, I believe that the Bible can be read in a highly metaphorical sense.  Personally, I have ceased to read it literally at all, finding it wonderful literature rather than inspired text.  However, my personal approach to the Bible is beside the point here.  Somewhere in the New Testament Jesus says that it profits a man nothing to possess the whole world and lose his soul.  These words interpreted metaphorically and psychologically suggest that wealth will not bring us happiness.  What will in fact, bring us happiness is self-acceptance and authenticity and being true to self - all of which could be metaphorically expressed in "possessing one's own soul."

Happiness, Professor Ivor Browne, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at U.C.D, informs us, is not really a good or useful goal to have in life.  The concept of happiness, like that of love, has become debased by having such a multitude of possible meanings, and most of those meanings are either of ersatz or schmaltzy quality, that it has lost much of its depth.  Sometimes people simply mean pleasure when they refer to happiness - even varying degrees and levels of such pleasure.  Perhaps another concept may be more suitable?  Is happiness equivalent or more than contentment?  It surely is more than just superficial pleasure. 

I have just finished reading the three wonderfully inspiring lectures on happiness given by Professor Richard Layard and delivered on 3, 4 and 5 March, 2003 under the auspices of the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures for that year.  In the third of these lectures he finishes which what he believes is a good definition of what happiness might possible be, and I, for one, am quite taken with his suggestion.  What do you think?:

So my conclusion is: bully for Bentham. Let me end with these words from a birthday letter which he wrote shortly before he died to the daughter of a friend. He wrote: ‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul’.  (See here )