Sunday, December 14, 2014

Journal of a Soul 70

The Human Web

Our school debating team meets the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mr Christy Burke.
Identity is never something one constructs alone.  We are so much social creatures that our identity is moulded, shaped and formed within the context of community.  We reach out from our shell of individuality and, too often from a carapace of loneliness, for the supports of relatives, friends, team mates or other groupings to save us the frightening experience of being alone in the universe.  We were simply never made to be alone.  The wise words of the great philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) come readily to mind: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."  It is a quotation that has been etched on my heart or soul since I first heard it.  When one looks out into the infinity of space in the outer cosmos or into the equally mysterious space in the inner cosmos of the atomic world or even contemplates the seeming eternity of time versus the short duration of our little lives one can surely feel that frightening loneliness and brittleness of spirit that Pascal wrote so memorably about in those quoted words above.

Everywhere one goes one can see this thrust in humankind to reach out its fractal fingers over and over again and network its communications into a community - into a veritable human web.  We experience ourselves being moulded, shaped and formed in relationship with so many others whom we touch and who in turn touch us.  Most especially do we experience this sense of being a human community at Christmastide.  The tunes that emanate from the various shops, the songs that are played on the radio, the seasonal music associated with the Festive Season, the colourful lights sparkling in the frosty air, the buzz of busy shoppers buying gifts for loved ones all conspire to convince us even more that we truly were made to embrace and be embraced, that the first person plural is always so much more important than its singular number.  But then, most of us probably do not need too much reminding of this incontrovertible fact.

The Brittleness of Life

Ardgillan Park, Skerries, June, 2014
And yet we are all equally convinced of the sheer loneliness of certain brittle souls.  Only some few months ago I wrote about the final moments of a former student of mine who decided to end his life at twenty short years of age.  He left no note.  There was no indication, as far as I know that he had been suffering pain of such proportions that the only solution that presented itself to him was shutting off the pain by hanging himself from the branch of a lonely tree not far from our school. Further, the experts tell us that once a suicide has definitively decided on the exit plan that a sense of peace descends upon their lonely soul.  Indeed all this young man's closest friends and family attest to his being in fine form on the evening of his demise.  

As I write my mind is enlivened by other interweaving thoughts and feelings.  A colleague of many years passed away barely 24 hours ago.  He was a larger than life character who was a happy soul who had time for all the young men he had taught over his thirty-five year career. He was also generous and kind to a fault.  Sadly, a son of his had predeceased him in an  act of suicide. Then there are other feelings and thoughts which vie for their attention in my mind: another close friend whose mother is dying from cancer, yet another who is herself recovering from an operation occasioned by the excision of a cancerous tumour. These thoughts and feelings trigger other, if older, sad memories of our fragility.  And yet that fragility is a hallmark of our humanity, a quality that somehow mysteriously magnifies the meaning of every little work of our creative if mortal being.  Shakespeare's genius - indeed his very soul -lives on in his wonderful writings.  Mozart's spirit endures in his wonderful music. And so on.  Humankind reaches out its cultural embrace down the timeless generations and on out into future possibilities beyond the finite and limited individual lifespan.

The web is always ever greater than its individual strands and in a Gestalt or holistic way far greater than the sum of its strands. And so I return inevitably to our starting point above that we are very much part of a human network greater than us, in a real sense a human web.  There is a famous seanfhocal or proverb in our native language - Gaeilge - which runs: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine and which translates "We live in each other's shadow" and to which the following English proverb approximates: "No man is an island." Further, the words of the sermon of the famous Dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, the wonderful poet and divine, John Donne (1572-1631) come to mind here: 

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 if a manor of thy friend 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. [Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness, published in 1624.]

The Temptations of the Ego
Moon reflected in water, Donabate Beach

In a sense here is where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha got things so right. In the second noble truth he tells us that suffering is caused by our clinging to things and craving them.  In fact we can also cling to and crave other people by becoming too dependent on them.  This essentially is the weakness of the human Ego.  The Ego in modern English has many meanings. It could mean one’s self-esteem; an inflated sense of self-worth; the conscious-thinking self or in philosophical terms, one’s self. Here, I am using it in a general way as that sense of one's control over one's own life, a sense that could view the self as the centre-point of control of all things that fall within that person's ambit.  Such a person might be arrogant, egocentric and narcissistic. Such indeed are the temptations of the Ego.  In extreme cases egocentrism and narcissism can and do lead to egomania or megalomania that were the hallmarks of dictators like Hitler and Stalin and so on. However, with sound soul-work or good therapy or indeed with mature self-development the Ego can find a balanced place where it can function in harmony with both Superego and Id in the Freudian structural model of the psyche. The Buddhists and Hindus do also use the word Ego as meaning a grandiose sense of one's own importance, a self-importance that must be tamed or even destroyed.  Indeed, the Buddhists have a teaching called Anatta which is a strict one that teaches the doctrine of neither accepting nor denying  the existence of the Ego or Self.  

In all of this we in the West have succumbed to the myth of the grandiose self (Ego) who can control all within its path.  It is also a vain self (Ego) that thinks it can know everything and achieve everything.  It is a power-hungry self (Ego) too that thinks it can control, dominate and subjugate others.  It is a greedy self (Ego) that thinks it can amass wealth after wealth even if this means exploiting others.  It is a lustful self (Ego) that desires the satisfactions of the flesh in all its incarnations.  It is also often a foolish self (Ego) that thinks it can avoid ageing, dying and death.  It is, moreover, a stupid self (Ego) that avoids facing up to painful truths about life.  The reader can add his or her own descriptions of the self (Ego) to this list.

In all of the above the temptations of the Ego-Self are to separation, that the "I" can control, that the "I" can possess, that the "I" can triumph, that the "I" will suffice.  The teachings of all religions and mysticism in general are that the "I" will not suffice, that the "we" of union and unity and oneness only will endure. The path of the Real Self, then,  is to integration not separation.  And so the way out of this separation is through engaging in practices that promote integration, unity, community and communion with one another, even with all of creation, with Mother Earth or Gaia herself. The way out of all the deceptions that the Ego-Self offers us is by engaging in meditation or in any other soul-making activities that recognize the shallowness of the above listed myths of the modern self. In short, no matter who we are, we simply do not get out of life alive. We were made to die and that is the truth of it.  To live is to die.  To live well is to learn to die. To live is to realize that we are a little part of a greater whole. 

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