Nothing New Under the Sun
|Heron in Malahide Estuary recently|
Sometimes, it's very hard to write something new, something vibrant, something with an edge. It's so easy to write trite, hackneyed or banal things about anything, but possibly easier still to write such things about spirituality or about the soul, simply because they belong to a more nebulous and mysterious, if not mystical area of experience. In my senior years in secondary (high) school, I was very much taken with the rather skeptical remarks from the Old Testament writer Qoheleth who opined just exactly what's stated in my above heading - that indeed most things were thought about or tried before, and so on. A lecturer I had at college many years ago - a brilliant theologian and indeed philosopher - always recommended that if we are to be good scholars we should always deploy a healthy skepticism about anything we read. Obviously we could also use the same tactic with regards to anything we encounter in life. Needless to say, we are quite liable to be duped if we don't employ such basic tactics.
The Spiritual Entrepreneurs: A Word of Warning
|What would we do without the simple worker bee?|
Recently, I have engaged in some on-line courses that promote spiritual development, and indeed, they have been good for the most part - life-enhancing, positive, and all promoting good sound mental health practices. I have had no problems with them myself because I still employ that old healthy skepticism recommended by both Qoheleth and my erstwhile, sadly now departed, lecturer. It seems to me that most of these organizations that are promoting these on-line seminars are very good. I will mention none of these by name as I feel they are providing a legitimate service, and also perhaps my own healthy skepticism may at times be somewhat unfounded, though I suspect not. (In other words, the philosopher in me asks if I am ever skeptical about my own skepticism!) What I have noticed is that while these organizations provide some authoritative sources for their claims, promote very good healthy practices - both physical and mental - and quote many recent scientific surveys, they can at times be somewhat prone to slip in rather unfounded promises in the midst of more obvious and scientifically based fact: the easy route to happiness, how to increase one's wealth almost without effort if only the listener or viewer will just sign up to this or that package of on-line courses that will give them the key to success. Now, as I have stated, most of the courses that I have tasted are impressive for the most part, but then rather subtly insert some impossible promise like total personal transformation, gaining the potential to become a millionaire, or to increase the length of one's life rather substantially in one case. I'm not against spiritual entrepreneurs and many of them are superb, but one has to be aware of the ones that get that little bit more woolly in their thinking and that little bit more hyperbolic and exaggerative in their claims as they hook and reel in their bait. They will do this, I believe, slowly and subtly. All I can say is that I accept most of their stuff in good faith, but fall back on my friend "healthy skepticism" when money is involved. Again, I'm not obviously against paying for downloads of conferences and good solid books, of which I have many. Nor am I against paying high prices for attending good conferences on spirituality/psychology or for attending extended courses with good solid speakers. I just feel we must not shut off our intellect when we put our spiritual senses into gear! I believe in Head (Intellect) and Heart (Feelings and the non-cognitive) - both/and, and never either/or. Either/Or alone is a human being flying on one wing who will crash to earth all too soon.
The Struggle that is Life
Having trod the soil of Mother Earth for some 56 years now, I have never yet met anyone who has easy solutions to the trials and tribulations either of their own life or that of their friends, colleagues or acquaintances. Indeed, I shut off my listening apparatus immediately if I do encounter such individuals in my daily life.
The people I encounter in my life comprise real human beings with long lists of strengths and failings. Just to go through some problems I encountered in others recently in my job as a teacher in an Autism Unit attached to a Secondary School and in colleagues, acquaintances and friends: lack of self-esteem, over-control, ego-tripping, micro-management, bullying, exaggeration, catastrophizing, depression, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, family breakdown, schizophrenia, stress, behavioural difficulties - ADD, ADHD, ODD - suicide, Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, gambling addiction and so on and on. Even people who appeared on the surface to be successful individuals all had one skeleton or other health-wise or problem-wise in their lives. In my lived experience, there are no easy solutions that trip off the tongue. There is the listening ear, the compassionate acceptance of others, the offer of practical help or where to get such help. In my growing understanding of life, both personally and professionally, the solutions if they are there are ones that happen in a community and family setting where the person can be helped to feel more wanted and more accepted and more belonging to that community. There are no easy solutions, but gradual supports can be put in place to help the individual cope.
Metaphor of Plant
|Flowers: Marley Park|
Metaphors and images speak more profoundly and clearly to the human psyche. Let me use the metaphor of plant here, and I borrow it from my reading of the great twentieth century counsellor Carl Ransom Rogers. He had started out with an interest in general science and horticulture and later moved into psychology and psychotherapy. Hence, he opined once that his clients were like plants that needed all the supports (or nutrients to sustain the metaphor) the gardener (metaphor for counsellor or significant other) could provide: care, compassion, empathy, congruence or authenticity and so on. Otherwise, the client simply would not grow - instead, like a badly watered plant, s/he will have stunted growth or will wilt and eventually die.
Fragility is another thought that comes to mind. As a poem-maker I love reading poems and writing them. One of my favourite poets is the late great Gaelic poet Seán Ó Ríordáin who wrote mostly philosophical/spiritual poems about the meaning and purpose of life as he saw it. Many of them were reflections on the mental and physical pain he suffered as a person who had Tuberculosis for most of his life. He spoke of "leochaileacht na beatha", that is "the fragility of life." The other morning I knocked a shade from the spray of lights in my sitting room and that shade smashed into smithereens (a real Gaelic word that found its way into the English language by the way). Life is like that: things break. Worse than that: people break, too. That's a horrible experience of which I have written much in this and other blogs. Hence, I have always found flowers placed on or before altars, or before statues, or at shrines, or simply in abundance at the place where someone tragically died to be most moving. They are saying something very profound about our fragility. In fact placing such flowers is an potent ritualistic act that acknowledges our own fragility and mortality.
|The lights of Howth Village, June, 2014|
Candle light is another image that comes to my mind. I have always loved the old Chinese saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Likewise, I have often lit candles in churches (and still do, even though I am not a church-goer in the sense of attending mass at all) when someone is ill. In our fragility such ritualistic acts are intra-psychically and inter-psychically potent. It was always a custom in Gaelic Ireland to place a lighted candle in the window at Christmas time as a sign to all that the stranger is welcome within. These days candles are replaced by stands of electric lights. Light can be at once fragile (easily blown out) and powerful beyond measure (can cause a tragic fire for example). Perhaps the profound message here is one of fragility and potential power at one and the same time.
There is very little to be said here by way of conclusion except to issue the invitation to all, and also indeed to myself, to be mindful of the polarities of fragility and potential, the weakness and the power of life. Let us cherish and protect it. Let us light the candles of welcome and hope and smell the flowers of our small and big successes. In all this let us shut our ears to false and easy promises that deny life rather than accept it in its sheer fragility and potential.