Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Journal of a Soul 74

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Kerry Cliffs, February 2015
In Ecclesiastes 1:9, the writer tells us in succinct words: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (NIV).  I often ponder these words whenever I might possibly think that I may have come up with a startlingly new insight into anything.  Indeed, I suppose, one of the few people for whom the thought is new is indeed I, the thinker of the thought. Often, I struggle to come up with something new for this particular blog because it is the most personal of any of the blogs I author or contribute to.  "How far have I progressed in self-knowledge?" has always been a constant question in my life since I was a young man.  Many years ago as a young novice I was a student in religious life for three years and for the duration of that time I would have attended a spiritual director/counsellor on a regular basis.  Hence, that question was to become and to remain an important one by which I measure my existence on this planet.  

At an an in-service programme I attended as a new Resource/Special Education teacher I remember the instructor telling us that many autistic children make progress in millimeters. I loved her analogy, and I suppose, in answer to my above question of myself, I could respond in like manner.  Along with the spiritual classics and the scriptures, I have always found reading every and any poem I can get my hands on thoroughly rewarding.  Poems in general contain a distilled wisdom in shape and sound that resonate in my heart.  Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular liking for the poems of T.S. Eliot and that I am wont to quote him often.  Once when accused of repeating himself a tad too often in his poetry, he replied in some such words as: "Ah, but I always said it in a new way each time." In other words, by implication, we can look at a problem or indeed the mystery of life itself from many different angles, from many different perspectives.

Nothingness and Emptiness

Portrane, February 2015
In The Myth of Sisyphus, that basic seminal text of absurdism, Albert Camus tells us that the thought about the sheer absurdity of life can strike us at any time and may occur as simply as when we might enter or exit a building through a revolving door.  Heidegger and the other philosophers of that amorphous and rather untidy group of writers/thinkers called existentialists stress that philosophy begins in this very experience of the nothingness and emptiness of life.  Now and again I hear friends and acquaintances ask the rather  common but exasperatingly desperate question of life, viz., "What's it all about, anyway?"  Richard Kearney reminds us that "through the experience of nothing, something emerges as important." (Life Lessons, ed. Rita de Brún, Dublin: New Island, 2014, p. 252)

Again, I was always taken by the question that Heidegger argued was the most important one that anyone could ever ask in philosophy since I first heard it, viz., "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  I first heard that question when it was addressed to us by Fr Patrick Carmody, our wonderful philosophy lecturer, way back in the 1970s.  Indeed, it is a question well worth pondering and indeed meditating on as a mantra in prayer.  Further, if you do so, as I have done from time to time, you will then understand what Wittgenstein meant when he declared "(T)hat this world is; that is the mystical."

The Power of Wonder

Cemetery, Portrane, Summer 2013
In other words, a sense of the mystical is experienced in our being driven to wondering what life is all about in the first place.  No wonder Socrates opined that "philosophy begins in wonder." [Plato puts those words in the mouth of Socrates in the Theaetetus 155 d (tr. Benjamin Jowett)] Or again, I am often reminded of an old Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schultz from my college years which featured Snoopy the dog and had the following caption underneath it: "Sometimes I sits and I thinks. Sometimes I just sits." (The dog in the said cartoon happened to be sitting on either a potty or a toilet bowl, I cannot remember which at this distance in time.)  These moments of wonder or even bewilderment - often expressed through tears, laughter, screams of joy, mania or even pain - represent the beginning of the philosophical quest.  We are figuratively thrown outside ourselves, or made to sit or stand "beside" ourselves and in doing so we put ourselves, others and everything in our world into question.  This is what the theologian Karl Rahner means when he says that "man is himself the question."  It is further most interesting to note that this brilliant theologian was long a philosophical disciple of the equally brilliant philosopher Heidegger who said that the human being is the only creature whose being is an issue for it.  

The Elusive Now

As far back as the early 1700s the Jesuit priest (and mystic in my opinion) Jean Pierre de Caussade S.J. (1675 – 1751) was encouraging those in his spiritual care to live in the present moment or in the "now" of experience. He was telling them that the present moment is a sacrament from God and that self-abandonment to it and its needs is a holy state.  And we think that Eckhart Tolle's teaching is new!   Indeed, many spiritual scholars have found Caussade's writings very similar to those of both Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. Again, our minds are rarely in the now because many of us may neurotically live in the past - regretting this, that or the other action or occurrence - or in the future - desiring or indeed fearing this, that or the other state or this, that or the other material thing.  Bringing the mind into the immediacy of the now of present experience is no easy task.  At a recent mindfulness retreat, the director reminded us that our bodies were always in the "now" and that this is why when we meditate we first return to mindfulness of our bodies, most especially to our breath, as a way of stilling the mind.  Meditation brings us back from that "standing beside ourselves" or outside ourselves that we have said is the beginning of philosophy.  Richard Kearney opines that "(i)n many respects, prayer, yoga, being one with nature, alcohol and food can be different ways of responding to the gap, of bringing us back to a certain kind of presence." (Op. cit., pp. 254 - 255)

Now, quite obviously the animal does not exist (from the Latin "ex-istere" which means "to stand out or apart from") in the same way as we humans do.  They can never stand out or apart from themselves a s we do.  Indeed, inanimate objects can certainly never exist in such a fashion at all.  Kearney again reminds us that for these reasons we are most likely ".... to relax with animals: they calm us and bring us back to earth, to basics and peace and quiet. Think of a purring cat or a sleeping dog." (Op.cit., p. 255)

From Esoteric Dreams to Concrete and Dirt

It is good to get stopped in our tracks, held up, brought to our knees, even onto all fours from time to time.  Some six weeks back I was walking all too quickly and blithely across our school yard lost in reverie, and indeed lost to the world.  As my late mother would have put it, I was "away with the fairies."  Then suddenly, crash, bang and wallop.  I had run into a huge garden planter that has been in the school yard for many years.  I cut both knees and both shins in my collision.  As I was doctoring myself with some medications from the  First Aid Kit some moments later I began to laugh at how ridiculous this whole existence is; how stupidly serious we actually take ourselves in our nothingness and emptiness and how desperately and sillily we want to fill that emptiness with our pipe dreams. Meditating some hour or two later, I realized that my collision with the garden planter was serendipitous as it was calling me back to an awareness of my body, or re-calling me to the now-ness and immediacy of the present, to be really and truly present to myself in the here and now.  This is essentially what all meditation, what all mysticism is about.  Further, some clay spilled out of the planter and it reminded me that as the Bible said we were made of such and to such we would return.  It also reacquainted me with the fundamental meaning of being "human" which is etymologically linked with the Latin word "humus" which simply means clay or earth.  

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why does the planter exist in the first place? Why do I exist?  These are questions we will never get a final answer to, but that is not what life is about at all, is it, dear reader?  It's the wonder and mystery of all those questions that keeps us going; that pushes us on to ever new horizons; that inspires us to strike out for the next hill or valley, to set off to foreign lands, to explore the mysteries of space and to wonder at our own littleness and brittleness against such vastness.  We were made to wonder.  We were created to be philosophical and spiritual beings.  May we never stop wondering and may we never stop asking those big questions of ourselves.  

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