“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Arundhati Roy’s book, The Cost of Living
“I have been increasingly conscious … of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away a part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live her own life, to die his own death.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Article in New York Times by Oliver Sacks, The article was written after Sacks, 81, learned he had only months to live.
In Defence of the Mind
Many years ago I had a sixth share in a racehorse. Her first race was in a three-year-old maiden. Everyone was very excited. The horses left the barrier but as they got closer to the winning post, it became clear our big hope was going to run stone motherless last.
When the jockey dismounted, our agitated trainer said to him: “Look there was a good gap back there at the 400, why didn’t you push her through?”
The jockey looked up at the trainer and said: “Because the bloody gap was travelling faster than we were.”
This is not unlike the way I feel when listening to some of the more esoteric readings and homilies at St Mary’s.
Even when I was little, I never understood why religious people tried to rationally explain something which was a mystery, and therefore, by definition, irrational and inexplicable. The emergence of new age spiritual movements has not changed this view. Old or new, much of the terminology and language used to explain spiritual concepts is often impenetrable.
To illustrate, let me use a sentence by the new age spiritual guru, Deepak Chopra. Chopra was responding on his website to a question from a follower about meditation. This is a small part of what he wrote:
“I think you were contemplating the homogenous, monochromatic nature of unbounded awareness in its state of pure potentiality, not making the connection that every actual manifestation of creation implies that it existed in an unmanifest state of potentiality beforehand.”
Maybe I’m not making enough of an effort, but, to me, that is a car crash of a sentence. It may also be deliberate obfuscation. Like the colonel’s secret ingredient, if everyone knew what was in the chicken, it may no longer have the same appeal. Chopra may be a guru, but in our increasingly commodified society, he is also a brand and a product. If marketing is about anything, it is about protecting the brand and imbuing each individual product with magical properties even when the contents of those products are the same.
Most new age spirituality is, in essence, a re-packaging of concepts from a diverse range of ancient non-English texts sometimes with a bit of pop psychology thrown in. In the process of translation the original concept often gets lost in the new language.
For example the term “non-dual”. Non-dual is an attempt to describe the Hindu concept of “the middle way”. But I don’t think the words “non-dual”, not two, capture the elegance or depth of the original concept. In Hindu and Buddhist thought the middle way is the path of moderation between extremes. My problem with the term “non-dual” is I don’t see any middle there. “Not” is oppositional and, therefore, the very thing it purports not to be: dual.
This difficulty with translation also exists in Christian texts. The original word for “sin” from the Greek scriptures is “amartia” “Amartia” is an archery term, which means “to miss the mark”. In ancient Greece, markers stood near the target. The archers fired their arrows. If the arrow hit a small gold mark in the centre of the target the marker shouted “martia” meaning you’ve hit the mark. If the arrow hit the target outside the gold mark the marker shouted “amartia” or you’ve missed the mark.
How and when did this forgiving metaphor of missing the mark become “sin” punishable by the eternal flames of hell? But, I am neither a theologian nor an etymologist, so I shall leave these questions to others.
I’m here for two reasons. Firstly, to defend the mind and thinking which I feel often gets a bad rap here. The mind is sometimes spoken of as if it were an enemy or some alien creature inhabiting us. As if it wasn’t real. As if our grey matter was not a body part. The second reason is to explain why I come to St Mary’s despite sometimes not identifying with the messages.
Between 2003 and 2007, I undertook weekly psychoanalysis (or talk therapy) with a wonderful old Klienian-inclined psychiatrist.
One of the things I discovered from my sessions with him is how often in my life, faced with powerful feelings—feelings like fear, anger, envy, shame, as well as desire or joy for that matter, my thinking appeared to race off into a fantasy world of its own. The problem was whenever the fantasy proved to be just that, the powerful feelings which propelled it were still there, more powerful than ever. Consequently, fear became anxiety; anger, resentment; envy, a kind of resigned despair; desire, obsession, and so on.
This was the first time my therapist said to me, “Robert, it’s about the capacity to think and feel at the one time.”
Coincidentally, around the same time, I also began going to the mindful meditation group which met in the old church. The group based its practice on the Thich Nhat Hahn Plum Village tradition. The first words I heard there were “now is the time to bring our minds back to our bodies”. Because of my therapeutic work, I knew immediately what that metaphor meant and I felt its significance.
The metaphor breaks down of course, as all metaphors will, because anything created by my thinking is not separate from me at all. My thoughts are not out there. They’re in here. In my mind. In this body. And because they are in this body and of this body, if my thinking gets hooked on to, or, worse, locked into a fantasy there can be no end of trouble. The most extreme version of this is suicide bombing – the romantic idea that through religious martyrdom (and murder) I will find eternal happiness in God’s kingdom.
I practice meditation because it gives me the means by which I can accomplish what my therapist was challenging me to do: to develop my capacity to think and feel at the one time. To genuine practitioner/teachers like Thich Nhat Hahn, who has not succumbed to delusions of grandeur or material ambition, there is nothing mysterious about meditation. It is no more or no less than a practice anyone can use, at any time, in any situation, for any length of time.
Just as the archer practices looping her arrow so she is able to hit the mark more often than miss it, so, too, is meditation the practice of bringing the mind’s attention back to the body so it can deal with what is real rather than what is imagined.
I have no desire or need to mystify the practice by wrapping it up in some homogenous, monochromatic unbounded awareness of pure potentiality.
One of Thich Nhat Hahn’s guided meditation mantras says: “Breathing in, thoughts and feelings come and go.” This is plain language and an accurate description of what happens in my mind. And I know I am at my healthiest when I allow those two lovers of thought and feeling to embrace each other, take to life’s dance floor and trip the light fantastic in their unique, sometimes dazzling, sometimes fumbling, little fandango.
It’s a dance to death.
The thing is, it nearly never happened. One microsecond before or after conception and I wouldn’t be here. By a twist of fate or providence time fused with the universe. I slipped through a breach in oblivion and in the dark heaven of my mother’s womb a single cell split, and became two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then everything else was extension until I was 37.2 trillion cells.
You want magic? Now that—that really is magic. There is enough mystery in a mother’s womb to last a lifetime. All of our lifetimes. And, for me, it begs a question: Why would we want a greater mystery than that? To answer to this question perhaps we need to stop looking beyond us and instead look within. Is it possible that all these religious texts, written, translated and interpreted, primarily by men about a man’s creation, come out of an unconscious primal sense of powerlessness? Men can never be mothers. Unlike women, men can never feel, and therefore never truly know, the fundamental mystery of creation.
When I look at the world throughout history and today, I don’t see much evidence that my gender, collectively, has the humility even to contemplate that question. It takes a woman like Arundhati Roy to remind us of the fundamentals: “To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance.”
We may all just be remnants of the big bang. I understand that. But, insignificant are we are, we no less interesting for being so. As Oliver Sacks says we are sentient beings, thinking animals on a beautiful planet. We have been given much and we have the capacity to give in return. We can love and be loved. But, this is what I think is truly breathtaking, we can be aware of all these things and reflect on them. We can find ways to describe and share what we see and hear and taste and touch and feel and think with each other.
A decade or more ago I walked into the old St Mary’s. A large circle of people from diverse spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds crowded around a table and said, not to a male authority on high, but to each other: “We come to this table to renew our unity with one another.” After that I couldn’t get enough of you.
I was fascinated by the theology (or, some might say, lack of it), but, as a humanist, I didn’t come for that. I wasn’t looking for spiritual answers. I came back, and I’ll keep coming back, because of you. Because you were then, and you continue to be, a loving, caring, empathic, thoughtful, engaged community in a society where community is becoming more and more an endangered species. I’m here because I don’t want my dance to be alone. I want my dance to be with others. I’m here because I want my fandango to intermingle with all of your fandangos.