Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 54

Poem 54

Whoever is planted in the Tao
will not be rooted up.
Whoever embraces the Tao
will not slip away.
Her name will be held in honor
from generation to generation.

Let the Tao be present in your life
and you will become genuine.
Let it be present in your family
and your family will flourish.
Let it be present in your country
and your country will be an example
to all countries in the world.
Let it be present in the universe
and the universe will sing.

How do I know this is true?
By looking inside myself.


Random stones on a random street, Prague, February, 2016
One of the abiding questions that has always intrigued me is how progress is measured.  As a teacher I am well used to setting examinations and correcting them.  As a student myself of one thing or another for the most of my life I have obviously subjected myself to such assessments, too.  Further, most workplaces insist on certain levels of self-assessment these days.  It can be quite easy to measure specific things without a doubt, like temperature, air pressure, blood pressure, water pressure, traffic speed, acceleration and so on.  Likewise, our measurements of such forces have become more refined and more precise as society progresses.  We can ask many questions with respect to progress and measuring it.  One such question, among many, we can ask is whether we can accurately measure intelligence? The answer is in the affirmative, but first we have to agree on what we mean by intelligence. With the ground-breaking psychologist, Daniel Goleman, most educationists and psychologists agree that traditional IQ tests are pretty restrictive and restricting and are only measuring a very narrow range of native intelliegence.  Goleman and others now recognise some nine forms of intelligence, and indeed there may be more.  Furthermore, there have also been many geniuses who failed miserably at school, not because they were unintelligent or stupid, but essentially because they did not learn in the restricting ways most school systems require.

That leads us on to whether we can measure our emotions and feelings.  How can we measure compassion and loving kindness, or even our love for one another or for a particular friend or sweetheart or our attraction to this, that or the other piece of art or sculpture or architecture or music?  There are so many immeasurable things - indeed, we often call them priceless as we cannot fix any monetary value to these works of art, to these cultural entities - that we humans are caught up in by the sheer accident of our birth. 

Girl with here dog, Prague, February, 2016
The further question, a big existential question for this writer here, is how do I measure my spiritual progress at all?  I have read many philosophy, theology and spiritual books in my time - certainly since I was 18 and went to college - and am still reading them, and yet at a certain level I feel as far away from my goal as I ever did at the age of 58.  Progress along the spiritual path is often very hard for me to measure at all.  Sometimes I wonder if I have really made progress at all? One day I feel that I have comprehended this or that deep truth, experienced this or that spiritual delight, and then, to my utter disappointment, these small comprehensions and minute illuminations seemed to have slipped away overnight into the ether upon waking the following day.  It's as if I was back at the beginning again and had to struggle on and find new and more compelling experiences and insights. (I am, of course, here reminded of T.S. Eliot's great spiritual insight that "We shall not cease from exploration//And the end of our exploring//Will be to arrive where we started//And know the place for the first time." In other words, I often take a little encouragement from these profound words, and realise that my knowledge has deepened rather than increased! "Little Gidding")

Classical Musician, Prague, Feb, 2016
As I sit here now I remember all the people who impressed me in my life with their spiritual commitment or  insights.  I think of my mother for her spiritual strength, a woman who never let life get here down, who quite simply was willing to begin again and again everyday, literally to start the struggle to survive and to provide for her family over and over on a daily basis.  Further, I think of the kindness of the old people I knew as a child who lovingly gave us a few coins for doing this or that message for them and I recall their kind words. I remember the older boy, Lar Cranny, who brought me to the children's hospital when I was badly bitten by a dog when I was a boy of 6 or 7 years.  Poor Lar, who became a teacher like myself, is now dead, R.I.P., having been tragically killed in a motor accident some years ago. I remember how my father refused to be victimised by the illness of polio through which he lost the use of his right arm and how he kept going for us his children.  I recall the wisdom of our teachers at school and college.  Those who influenced me spiritually I can list here as Rev Dr. Paddy Wallace, a wonderful visionary and prophet, and Rev Dr. Michael-Paul Gallagher S.J. who taught me how to meditate, Rev. Dr. Brian McNamara, S.J. who taught me how to wrestle with even the most complicated of theologies and Rev Dr John Macken who taught me to appreciate the way of "wise ignorance" or what St Augustine called the "docta ignorantia."  John had that gift in abundance and his gentle scholarly soul led me through many intricacies is post-graduate theology.  I tried to internalise all the lessons these wonderful people have taught me in my life, and yet as I go on, I find life is still somewhat of a struggle, that the journey continues.  I recall here, Robert Frost's famous answer to the question as to what he had learnt from life as being simply, "It goes on!"  Yes, life goes on, and that is surely both its beauty and its challenge at one and the same time.  All we hold dear would be so much superficial dressing were it not for suffering and death, two realities which raise the value of human life in its fragility to the nth power as it were.

Love is.... Prague, Feb, 2016
What keeps the heart going?  What keeps us from giving up? Each of us must, of necessity have some aim or a goal in life; have some reason to get out of bed in the morning; have some courage to keep going no matter what the cost; have some hope in the face of despair - maybe that's what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said that life begins on the far side of despair?; have some reason to live and some reason to die. We have to put down roots somewhere, otherwise we will wither and die all too quickly.  That's why commitment to values, to religions, to deeply held beliefs even outside the religious fold, to goals and visions to give us courage to keep going are so important in the human prject of making sense of our little brittlr lives.  That's why our Taoist poet above calls upon us "to be rooted in the Tao," to work at getting a spiritual centre, a Still Point of being to give us focus in our lives so that we can carry on.

It often seems to me that spiritual progress can be somewhat cyclic and that it can lead us further down (depth psychology or depth spirituality) into the profundity of mystery or further up (height psychlogy or height spirituality) into the sublimity or heights of mystery. In that cyclic journey it can seem that one is returning to the same place. (See quotation from T.S. Eliot above)  I think here of the analogy of the spiral staircase - as one is either going up or down, it can often seem as it one is going around and around in the same space and yet that is the deception.  One is in fact moving - either up or down - while all the time on the journey, it may seem as if no progress is being made.

Here, I would like to finish with a very siritual poem - one of my all time favourites by a contemporary Irish poet, whom it has been my privilege to meet many times in my life, namely Brendan Kennelly - which sums up for me the heart of all great spiritualities and in our particular sense what our Taoist poet has been expressing so well in the above stanzas.  

Once again, I invite the reader to read the above Taoist poem as reflectively as possible and then do the same for this equally beautiful and equally spiritual modern poem:


Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,

begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

Swans, Prague, February, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment