Ireland at a Crossroads (a brief talk given at the book launch)

I grew up during the ‘60s in the US, that great time of revolution and social change. Many social institutions were being challenged, most with good reason. One of the primary institutions under scrutiny was religion, especially Christianity. The many hypocrisies of its leaders and the betrayals of its founder were very obvious. The lack of credibility of many of its dogmas due to the development of knowledge over the centuries further undermined the its validity. Textual criticism, the ability to analyse a book and see how it was put together from many different sources and times, was particularly good at calling into question the accuracy of many Biblical claims. And so the Church began to lose followers, especially among people in my generation.

There were a number of alternatives based on the message of Jesus that were put forward, but these were rejected, especially by the Roman Catholic Church. It was their way or the highway. So, off many people set on the highway, sans religion. This did not seem to be a problem for that group on their journey. It wasn’t until the next generation came along, that signs of danger began to surface. Dubbed the ‘Jesus movement’, many young people were being recruited by Christian fundamentalists as well as other cults.

Young people are vulnerable to such recruitment because they are seeking an identity. This is a normal part of human development. But if they are coming from homes with insufficient emotional support, such as working parents too busy to take time with them, or abuse or neglect, then a religion which promises them belonging, forgiveness, salvation, and power is an irresistible magnet, drawing them in like hapless iron filings. The result of this movement in the US, which started in the 1980s, is now on display for the world to see.

I would suggest that Ireland is at a similar point in its spiritual development today. The Irish Church has disgraced and discredited itself in many ways. The number of people who go to church regularly, who take the hierarchy seriously in their pronouncements, or who deeply believe any of the Christian message are relatively few, especially among the current younger generation. This is simply a fact of life. Whether you like it or you don’t, doesn’t matter. What does matter is the response that is made to this state of affairs.

If we simply ignore it, then a strong possibility is that missionary movements, of which there are already a few in the country, will come and do the same thing that they did in the US. Fundamentalist churches and preachers are extremely well funded. This is because they facilitate the power of the superrich and their multinational corporations. It is in their interests to promote a population who will not challenge them in their exploitation of a country or the planet. The sole focus is on being saved and following the rules of the church, no matter how oppressive and bizarre they might be. The history of Roman Catholicism in Ireland is a good example of how people will follow the most irrational of rules if they think that their salvation depends on it. The ritual of ‘churching’ in which a woman, who has given birth was made ritually clean from the impurity of that event, is a good example.

Another alternative is that coming generations will simply uncritically adopt the identity of consumers. This was on display during the years of the Celtic tiger. Conspicuous consumption was all the rage. People competed for the fanciest house, the greatest number of houses, the most lavish holidays, the most expensive schools for their children, etc. This left many people in very precarious predicaments when the crash hit. They had been lured with the marketing line – ‘you are under borrowed’ – and ended up losing their home rather than enjoying the prosperity promised them. This has resulted, as designed, in the upward rush of money to the financial elites.

What is at stake here is how we identify ourselves. What do we believe in? What is the point in living? What does it mean to be a psychologically healthy human being? When the time of our death arrives, what will provide us with a sense of a life well-lived? How do you answer these questions for yourself?

It is just these sorts of questions that I have addressed in Spirituality: A User’s Guide. In my own journey to answer these sorts of questions, I found myself drawn to ways of healing my inner emotional pain. We are fortunate to have discovered effective ways to understand and heal emotional pain in the past 20 to 30 years. Not surprisingly, it’s all about love. Being loved, loving others, reducing our fear, and helping others and the environment to be loved as well, is, I would suggest, what it’s all about. Believing in love is the basis for a belief system, but constructing that system is a whole other task.

Let’s look at some aspects of a spiritual story. If we don’t believe in heaven and hell, then what sort of story do we tell ourselves about what happens when we die? Some people are able to be content with the thought that that’ll be it – end of story. But for many people, this is a depressing and scary thought. Thus, it does not meet the criteria for a psychologically healthy spiritual story for them. And since there is no way to know for sure what does happen when we die, then it’s important to use a story that works for you.

If we want our children to get ahead in life, how does that influence the way we treat everyone else’s children? Is it ‘me and mine’ first and devil take the hindmost? Or do we try to set up social policies that make sure that as many people as possible enjoy the greatest benefit? What’s our attitude to those who amass huge amounts of money? Do we admire them and want to be like them, or do we see them as parasites on society? What do our heroes look like? Do we make friends with the powerful, the local lords, or do we work for an inclusive society with transparent workings of power?

If you have children, what do you say to them about who you are or what the meaning of life is? Or do you just ignore this topic, relegating it to the dark press where other topics like sex are hidden? Of course children are very astute, so what you say won’t make nearly as much difference as what you do. Do you spend every waking moment pursuing more and more, or do you prioritize spending time with them in an emotionally nurturing way? Do you allow them to demand all the latest gadgets as seen on TV, or do you help them to see how they are being manipulated and show them where the real value of life is to be found?

Obviously, the construction of a psychologically healthy spirituality, spiritual story, or meaning of life is a huge task. But we are not the first to do so. It has been done many times, over and over. Sometimes the outcome worked really well, while in other situations it was eventually abandoned as unsatisfactory or destructive. Looking at what has been done previously, especially the most recent effort in the West, Christianity, but other efforts as well, can be very useful. Take the best and leave the rest!

I review this history in the book. Jesus was essentially about social justice – love your neighbour as you love your self; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Buddhism has honed meditation techniques that are essential to being a whole human being. The overdevelopment of the rational mind has disappeared other levels of reality, levels needed to balance out the obsessions and other limitations of the rational mind. The stories of the first peoples, sometimes called Natives or Aboriginals, prioritize stewardship of the earth. They lived and thrived for thousands and thousands of years. After less than 300 years of the Industrial Revolution, we are rapidly making the planet unliveable for human life as well as destroying many other species. Developmental psychology has convincingly outlined what it means to love infants, children, ourselves. What many people think is loving has been shown to be anything but. Quantum physics has demonstrated that we can’t have access to absolutes, so there’s no point in insisting that we have the absolute, god-given truth. What we need is a story that is personally workable, and which tolerates everyone else’s story. Stories that don’t tolerate other versions are psychologically unhealthy.

However, we need more than intellectual tools for constructing our spiritual story. We also need experience. The more years of diverse experience upon which we have reflected compassionately, the truer we will be to life as it is lived by as many people as possible. But there is also an internal type of experience which is central to our task. We need to connect with the other side of our minds, the non-rational part. This is best done through meditation, mindfulness being one of the best avenues for this journey.

Modern society is so thoroughly biased towards the rational, scientific world view, that this other side of our mind is either thought not to exist, or seen as a more primitive, useless aspect. It is not. It is that part of ourselves that connects us with all that is. It is accessible to each one of us, though it takes effort to escape the grasp of our rational mind. When you do come into contact with this energy, it provides you with a perspective that cannot otherwise be gained. Some have called it ‘the still point in the turning world’, the constant motion of the rational mind having been left behind. In this stillness, we know that we are one with the entire universe. Without this awareness, any spiritual story will be incomplete, sectarian, and setting up a ‘them and us’ version of reality.

In summary, what we need for a healthy spirituality is a workable story that allows us to sustain human life and the planet. I am asking you this evening to look at the importance of addressing this task. I have written this book to help you with it. It is based on my personal experience as well as the accumulated wisdom of what I found to be the most effective and useful knowledge currently available. I am not telling you what to believe or what your story ought to be. But I am pointing out that IF your story is not based on love, the practical, hard-work type, not the romantic ideal, then you may find it contributes to the problems of Ireland and the world today rather than taking you and us to a better place.

Why Meditate?

In Spirituality: A User’s Guide on several occasions I urge the reader to meditate. I want to expand on that admonition now. Meditation is hard work. It takes lots of discipline, persistence, and courage. It takes you closer to your pain when you could just ignore it or distract yourself. It takes time, when you could be watching a screen somewhere near you or interacting with your kids or friends. It can seem so futile, as your mind rabbits on about everything and anything.

So is it worth the effort? Everyone who has persisted gives this question an unequivocal ‘yes!’ Let me try to put more words on why this is the case. Our world is extremely left brained dominant; that is, rational thinking is the only mode valued, promoted, and generally accepted. But rational thinking, while useful for problem solving applications, is very limited otherwise, often draining of our energy when used inappropriately, and easily manipulated whether by our internal distress or external forces.

When we are feeling anxious, distressed, or otherwise insecure, our rational mind takes it upon itself to try to solve the problem. It wants to know, ‘what did I do wrong?’, ‘why am I always making a mess of things?’, ‘where is the next bit of danger coming from?’, etc. You no doubt have your own list of go to questions for tormenting yourself. If asked in a calm, focused way, some of this analytical mindset can be useful, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. It’s the washing machine effect, of going round and round in circles that wears us out, a total waste of time and energy. The only healthy solution is to notice what is going on, and to make the effort to refocus on something else, like your breath, or the feel of your environment, or a repeated word. (The unhealthy solutions are mentioned in my blog post on escape.) In this way, you refuse to let your rational mind control you in an irrational way. It can’t solve these sorts of problems, but it hates to give up!

It takes a fair amount of practice over time to get better at taking back control of your consciousness from obsessive thinking. Even in the short term it does help to settle your nerves and remind you that the rat on the wheel is going nowhere. But once you do get more space in your head, you give yourself the possibility of experiencing the other part of your mind – the expanded part. Unless you get free of the rational mind, you can’t access this wonderful and energizing state of being. The transition from one aspect to the other generally isn’t instantaneous. It takes at least a few minutes to gradually sense the glimmer of something other than the presence of words or fear.

It is notoriously difficult to try to describe this other experience, because words are the tool of the rational mind. So this effort will have something of that old adage about five blind people trying to describe an elephant. They each have hold of a different part of the beast; each is accurate, but none grasp the full picture. It is only the experiential being there that can know that, but it is beyond words. Here are the aspects that I notice as I am transiting into that part of me.

Most of the time, I notice that my body starts to relax a bit more – around the eyes, the jaw, the breathing, the shoulders. Then I feel my mind slow down and sort of expand. This expansion reflects the movement into the volume of the universe, all that is. This is quite palpable. You’ll recognize it if you’ve ever had a mind-expanding insight. As the rational mind fades, and as you allow the other side to inform your awareness, you may notice a warmth or a flow of energy in your body. A sense of peace ensues, and you feel like you could be with that for a long time. But the rational mind isn’t to be pushed aside quite so deftly and before you know it, there’s a thought and you’ve been hijacked! But not to worry, just let the thoughts go and return to the peace. This takes practice, and if your fear is too ingrained in your body, you may need to deal with it before you can maintain your dwelling in this other side of your being.

Once you have begun to access this other part of your consciousness, it’s very helpful in dealing with the challenges of life. It provides you with strength, love, and peace. It is your still point in a chaotic world that lets you stay focused on being true to who you are while responding creatively to those around you and the wider world. Without this sort of inner resource, life can be overwhelming. I started trying to meditate when I was 19, and I thank my lucky stars that I did. The younger you start, the better. But it’s never too late to begin!

Escape

More than any other motivation, escape is the driver of our modern world. Everyone wants to get away, zone out, be entertained, disappear into a screen nearby. Why is this? What makes our lives so intolerable that we have to get away constantly? People talk about the pressures of modern life, jobs that don’t satisfy, debts that are never finally paid, distress that seems unending, family conflict for generations, emptiness that can’t be filled. The solution for all these is to escape – into a drink, a drug, compulsive behaviors, 24/7 news, computer games, holidays, screens, sports, novels – distractions that leave us feeling even worse when they eventually peter out.

Sitting still without activity, being alone with our self, getting the rational mind to let go of rabbiting on – all of these are seen as a fate worse than death. We have to keep moving, doing, achieving, meeting goals. Are we having fun yet? But what are we missing by not being able to be in the moment, alone with our distress, engaging with the depths of our being?

In olden days, before the invention of electricity and modern conveniences, it wasn’t really possible for a person to live on their own. Being part of a collective – a large, extended family, a wealthy household, a religious community – was necessary for basic survival. One person simply couldn’t do everything that was needed to sustain life. Each person had their place and it was amongst many other people. Being alone for any length of time just wasn’t sustainable. Hermits never lived that far from a village; anchorites always lived in the midst of a community whether religious or secular. People just didn’t even think about living alone and generally didn’t see it as desirable.

But now a days, it is quite possible, with sufficient income, to live on your own. There is still plenty of social contact if you work for a company of any sort, though the option of working from home via the internet has lessened even that opportunity for interpersonal interaction. Slowly, as we spend more and more time on screens, we have less and less direct human contact. We are escaping into a virtual world that is sterile and inhuman. Escape doesn’t seem to be working. We just have to work harder at finding ways to shield ourselves from the underlying pain.

I have found after meditating for many decades, and learning more about the potential of my inner world from the experience of people like Jill Bolte Taylor, John Kabat Zinn, and Carl Jung, that there is an alternative to escape. There is another aspect to my psyche that has only recently been recognized to be what is missing in our left brain dominant world. It is a primarily non-verbal, vibrant energy that is and isn’t me (in the ego sense of that word). As I sit still, gradually insisting that the rational mind let go of its chatter, there tentatively emerges an experience of energy that provides solace and a sense of peace over time. This energy engenders a feeling of love, timelessness, and healing. It doesn’t solve the left brain’s problems, but it does provide an alternative experience of reality that sustains me in a way nothing else does. My rational mind is constantly trying to bring me away from it, but it is always there, the wholeness of me. It is in you as well. It takes time and effort to slowly dethrone the rational mind, but it is the only way to open to the other side of your self. I recommend it to you.

And with this new-found wholeness of self, we will find ourselves naturally returning to human contact. It will still take awareness and perspective to truly meet others where they live. But with an experience of stillness, we have a better chance of being patient with others, of meeting them where they live rather than needing them to meet our needs. Hell is other people only when we live in our own internal hell. Find the universe within you, and the world will be transformed.

Why this cover?

SAUG cover 300 x 199 pixelsWhat goes on the cover of a book is one of the crucial decisions any author makes. It has to grab the viewer immediately as well as conveying a fairly accurate idea of what the book is about. My book ranges over so many topics, some of them very complex and others somewhat abstract. I was at a loss as to where to go with a cover until one of my readers suggested that it is very much about the journey. That resonated well, so I proceeded to trawl through thousands of stock photos on the internet to find something that felt right. I had no definite idea what I was looking for when I started apart from views of paths and remote roads. I trusted that somehow it would become clear to me as I clicked along patiently. A pattern emerged of photos that felt right. They included an image of a sunlit path going forward, leading into murky areas which give way in the distance to light and beauty.

For me this very much captures the journey of life. There are times of relative clarity. Inevitably things go downhill and I begin to wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn. I struggle on and after a greater or lesser amount of time, things gradually ease up. This cycle repeats, which is why the saying that the journey is the destination captures a basic wisdom.

I was in college when I first discovered the great pleasure of walking and talking. Villanova has a green campus, which makes such walking all the more congenial. Toronto has a great system of parks and walks, which relieve the hard surfaces of city streets. Walking in West Africa was only done in the morning or late afternoon, but the scent of tropical trees and flowers was intoxicating.

Through the years, I have continued to savor the many hours that I have spent walking with friends, discussing the meaning of life, exploring our understanding of the flow of our lives, and witnessing the beauty of Nature encountered. Now that I live in Wicklow, the ‘Garden County’ of Ireland, walking has taken on an even greater satisfaction. It is a hilly county, and hillwalking is a very popular pastime. Gear for the Irish weather is a basic requirement, but there’s as much time spent taking in the spectacular views as there is talking.

So this cover on my book very much captures the enthusiasm for walking that has enlivened my inner journey. And hopefully the book itself will give you many topics of conversation for talking and walking with others as you travel the road of  your own search for the meaning in and of your life.

Anger

While there is much useful and valid information in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, it is missing something.  That something is an understanding of the role the body plays in our anger. Like so many approaches, it hasn’t yet integrated what we have learned about the physiology of anger. This discovery has come through the research done on the effects of trauma. The many wars of the 20th century (and still continuing into the 21st) have overwhelmed the healing professions with people who have been seriously affected by violence. This appalling legacy of traumatized individuals has demanded that we come to a better understanding of what is involved in this type of wounding.

What we have learned is that the body has developed its own methods for responding to threat.  It wants to either fight, flee, or collapse/freeze.  If it doesn’t do at least one of these things, it can’t let go of the feeling that something awful is about to happen. This feeling then haunts the person, generating waves of anxiety, anger, compulsion, and/or obsession.  There is a relentless driving energy that doesn’t allow us to rest peacefully.  This energy is held in the brainstem, and mediated by the sympathetic nervous system.  Eventually we are worn out with the effort of being angry, driven, worried, apprehensive, or scared. At that point the body collapses, the parasympathetic nervous system taking over and shifting to inaction.  This is the biological basis of depression, exhaustion, apathy, and sadness.

Most importantly, we have discovered that there is only one way to communicate to the brainstem – that is through the body. It is the oldest, most primitive part of the brain.  The other two parts, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex, are not wired directly to the brainstem.  This means that no matter how much we feel, emote, cry, or even laugh, there is nothing getting through to where the trauma is held. Likewise, no matter how much we analyse, observe mindfully, or change how we think about what happened (assuming we remember what it was), can we release the trauma from our body. Fortunately, the actual solution is much simpler than any of the above. We simply have to imagine ourselves back in the original event, and then push it, run away from it, or allow ourselves to collapse and stop fighting with it. These are the basic movements the body has developed over millions of years.  When these are done in a safe space, the body is then able to release this stuck energy. We don’t even have to remember what it was that scared us.  We simply feel the fear and then respond with an action of successful defence.

Having learned about trauma from wars has also helped us to identify it in people who have been traumatized in other ways besides wars.  We can now see that there are many sources of trauma in our lives.  It is much more common than most people are aware. Crucially, we have come to see that the younger a person is, the more easily they are traumatized.  An infant has very different needs to an adult. But if those needs are not met, they can quite easily die. Infants don’t perceive danger if someone with a gun walks into the room.  Rather, if someone screams at them, or their mother ignores them, or someone shakes them so their head moves in an unsupported way, they experience immense threat. It is not mediated by thinking.  It is a felt sense that their need for safety and holding has been violated. This is not something we will remember as adults, but it will just as surely leave us feeling afraid or anxious.

Before we release the energy of trauma from our body, however, it is really important that we not allow past events to control our behaviour in the present moment. This can be very difficult to do if we are not conscious of the energy that feeds our anger, anxiety, fear, or depression. So becoming mindful of ourselves is crucial to acting responsibly in the present moment. If we are only on autopilot, we don’t notice that our behaviour is making our life worse rather than helping us love ourselves and those around us.

First blog post

This is the blog I am starting as part of publishing my first book in Ireland, Spirituality: A User’s Guide. This book has been many years in the writing, and it’s exciting to see it finally being published.  It reflects the accumulation of knowledge, insights, opinions, and wisdom that I have come to during my six plus decades of life. As you will see from the autobiographical material in the book, and from what I will blog here, my life has never been dull.  I have lived on three continents, had two distinct careers, and am now embarking on a third.

Through all that time, my journey has been deeply informed by the guiding light of love’s priority.  Loving myself and loving others, not in a romantic way, but in deep and practical ways has been the red thread through the warp and woof of my choices and interactions. From early on, I discovered that psychotherapy is the process that most powerfully fosters and deepens one’s ability to love, and to heal the wounds that prevent one being compassionate, empathetic, and courageous in the way of love. Thus I have participated in that process for many years of my life, both as client and therapist.

Initially, I had been inspired by the religion I was born into, Roman Catholicism. My parents were devout people. Most importantly, Vatican II happened in the second half of my grade school years, nicely timed to bring excitement and exploration into things spiritual as I started high school and on into college. But obviously the world has moved on in a myriad of ways since the 1960s and ’70s. Both Roman Catholicism and Christianity no longer hold credibility for a lot of people who used to profess that faith.

Some of the loss of adherents has been related to the activities of the institutions themselves.  Not only the rampant sexual abuse, but the added disgrace of denying and hiding it, has put people off in droves. Even beyond that, however, the cosmology and the soteriology (how ‘salvation’ is understood) of the Judeo-Christian story are now seen as incompatible with a modern understanding of the universe and a love-based picture of the divine.

So on this blog I would hope that others would share not only their responses to what I have written, but also put words on how they make meaning in their own life.  My book will be live on the web and in bookstores in Ireland by September 2017 at the latest. In the meantime, I will gradually add to this blog.  Let me know what you like hearing about and feel free to ask questions.