Saturday, January 10, 2015

Journal of a Soul 71

The Journey Continues

Howth, Christmas Eve, 2014

A New Year has begun.  Another year has been clocked up on that strange weak vehicle of self or soul we call the body.  The calendar cycle has begun once again.  There is a wisdom in the seasons that seems to suggest that everything is cyclical, that progress is an illusion.  The way of wisdom is by the gradual erosion of our superficial beliefs bit by slow bit - like that proverbial drip that wears the stone.  Nothing is constant - all, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus says, is "in a state of flux," and yet there is a paradoxical cyclical repetition to change. 

Heraclitus in Raphael's School of Athens
The New Year is ushered in by a review of the events - little and great, insignificant and significant, heroic and tragic - of the past twelve months.  It is as if the fires of the last year have all burned themselves down into the ashes of our memory as we look ahead in anticipation and hope to the brighter fires of the year to come. Sometimes one gets the distinct impression that the drudgery of the whole thing begins again.  It's as if our body is growing tired of the whole thing and that the spirit itself is flagging.  When one looks out into the grey skies of winter in this northern hemisphere it feels as if one might be a character in a Kafka novel or a Beckett play - just there on an indifferent stage not understanding what has happened to you in life and that the blessed thing has a habit of just going on and on.  Yes, the cycle begins over and over again. And where lies the meaning?

There are sentences that haunt the mind of this writer - ones indeed of Biblical portent and intensity. These are sentences that come whistling like boys walking past graveyards on a dark shadowy night. "There is nothing new under the sun," says Qoheleth, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes and he proceeds in Kafkaesque and Beckettian tones, in absurdist or existentialist terms with these rather anachronistically modern lines that are paradoxically over 2000 years old:

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.

There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be among those who come after.
(Eccles. 1: 2-9)

And so here we go with another year. Where does that leave the writer of this blog? What about the progress on the spiritual way for this pilgrim soul?  I often wonder how far I have come and if any progress has been made at all.   Am I just beginning all over again? It often seems as if the spiritual journey is one of a cyclical nature too.  It feels as if the whole journey is beginning all over again from the start and that any progress that had apparently been achieved has now turned out to be a mere illusion.  With this in mind I can empathize with the young boy who informed me today that he had to get a repeat of his operation of four years ago to replace his VNS device (Vagus Nerve Stimulator) under the skin in his upper chest. This procedure is a modern treatment for trickier cases of epilepsy.  Or still again I can appreciate the predicament of anyone who has had a relapse of one or other disease that plunges them back to the beginning once again.

TS Eliot

And yet,  the words of Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) lift me, as they always do, with their dearly-bought but deep wisdom:

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. ("Four Quartets")

As any teacher or indeed any maker of poems will tell you a question like "what does this poem or these lines mean?" is a rather inappropriate one to ask of any such work.  Poems are an intricate interweaving of words, feelings, inspiration and sound, and their meaning lies somewhere in the interaction of the reader with that complex phenomenon.  So meaning is a very dynamic experience that cannot be reduced to a mere paraphrase.  

Let's try, though, to tease out some of the connotations and implications for our lives from Eliot's intriguing lines: 

Most of us are searchers and explorers who want to make some sense of our lives.  And moreover, we may never cease from doing so as Eliot suggests.  Oftentimes, and indeed our poet suggests always, we arrive back where we started out and see the place anew.  On one level the place is obviously the same, but now we are seeing it with "new" eyes, with a new optic, from a new or deeper or even different perspective.  Now there are new dimensions to our experience - new depths and/or new heights to it!

Making Sense of Life and the Turn to Meditation

If we don't seek to make some sense of our lives we are somehow consigned to a rather humdrum, boring and meaninglessly repetitious existence.  In short, we are meaning-making creatures and were meant to be.  In so doing, we are in a growing mode, ready to embrace happiness or that state called "flourishing" or "eudaimonia" by Aristotle.

However, searching and exploring can tire the spirit and the body.  I remember many years ago attending a spiritual retreat where each group was asked to come up with a name for their group.  The names suggested were along these lines: Searchers, Explorers, Sunflowers, Wayfarers, Pilgrims, Brothers and Sisters and so on.  The name that showed the least sense of struggle, obviously, was that of Sunflowers.  That particular group explained that they were so aware that they were respondents to sheer gifts and graces that were lavished upon them by God, the Universe or Life itself that they could come up with no other appellation.  This, at first sight, is a rather strange way of responding to life, is it not?  And yet it a legitimate experience of thanksgiving for life's bounty or bounteousness  that quite a number of people experience.  Sunflowers turn towards the sun and are led to blossom under its rays.  There are people who experience living as such a response to what they experience as the sheer giftedness of their being.

In those dry periods when its seems that I am going around in meaningless circles, as so brutally expressed in my opening paragraphs, that I am seemingly in the same old place or predicament, I often find myself turning to meditation.  Meditation for me can be done at three levels, and often I can do it at each of the three levels according to how I feel in any given situation.  At level one we can meditate at a physical level, that is, we can engage in it  solely as an exercise to relax our body.  At level two we can go deeper still and relax our mind - that is, where the mindfulness exercise is one of mental or psychological relaxation.  As a believer in the spiritual realm, I accept and indeed experience meditation as allowing me to experience a sense of being in touch with a deeper ground of my being, namely a divine or spiritual level to my life and to the world.  

It is at this third level that I experience graced moments of contact with a deeper or higher level reaching into my own little world.  This is very hard to describe because quite simply one has to experience it, to be touched by it and moved by it so as to appreciate it in any way at all.  It is at this level, I believe, that the human meditator can become like a sunflower responding to the Sun or Ground of life that some dare call God.  It is at this deeper (or higher depending on one's spatial metaphor) level that in T.S. Eliot's words we recognize or "know the place for the first time."  It is also at this level that one realizes that despite the seeming stagnation, the apparent atrophy and the stupefying stasis, there indeed has been a significant shift at the level of meaning, at the level of being, at the level of the spiritual journey.

And so the spiritual journey goes on.  As any pilgrim will tell you, the road is often twisting and troublesome, sometimes dangerous and impassable and yet one knows one can never turn back.  It is the persevering on that journey that counts.  Paul Tillich, the great German-American theologian and philosopher, called on us to "dare to be!"  He reckoned that this was the call issued to every human being in the task of making life meaningful in a very secular age.  For the wayfarer on the journey to self-knowledge and wisdom, this call can be re-written as "dare to journey onward" or "dare to risk" digging deeper or climbing higher or journeying further in the task of knowing your real self!  That way we will encounter our true and authentic self in all its dimensions.

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