It’s harder to be spontaneous than one thinks. It’s harder to be autonomous. This is partly because there’s often pressure to be a certain way. I’ve been discovering how deeply embedded compliance is and how invariably I find myself agreeing to things that I later realise are against my best interests. Usually it feels uncomfortable or I begin to see what I have done. What I can later realise, but only if I become or are made aware of it, is that I have fallen into an old trap of ‘pleasing a parent’ – in my case ‘pleasing mother’. But it happens with all sorts of people – men and women, family, friends and professionally… this is because old habits die hard. Of course it’s not possible to really please people as there are always other mixed feelings going on, or the other person wants the impossible. For children cannot satisfy their parents’ own emotional deficits. In fact it puts the child into an impossible position almost a double-bind when they are asked to parent their own parent and in so doing sacrifice themselves. Here’s the thing – we carry on all these old ways of trying to gain approval and this is despite knowing the futility. In another wonderful poem by Mary Oliver called The Journey she writes about this.
In the first part of the poem she writes of this dawning awareness and then:
‘You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations …’
Here’s the heart of the experience:
‘and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save’
This is the breakthrough – you can see the whole poem at either of these
‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow’
these lines from Lamentations are often read during Holy Week and used for meditation and reflection, but they also resonate for everyone struck by personal or community tragedy. Returning after a few days away from email I was overwhelmed by the number that I had from charity and campaign sites… all asking for money or a signature for this or that campaign. One was for feral pigs being shot, another for baby seals clubbed to death, another for child brides, another against the destruction of some wilderness area and so on. Oceans of suffering and pain across the world. And all those suffering whether human or animal or of the environment seemed to have no voice except for those supporting their cause. And who are we who pass by … looking at such sorrow … then perhaps if we feel in the right mood or have the time offering a signature here and some money there … are we innocent or guilty bystanders?
Whichever there is a common responsibility and yet at another level it seems so hopeless. Does any of it make a difference…? Thomas Merton reassured Jim Forest a young peace activist that it was best to think that you could effect no change but that you carried on anyway… something like small candles in the wind. Merton writing in a letter in 1961 ‘And in the political dark I light small, frail lights about peace and hold them up in the whirlwind’.
Christianity offers such small frail lights in the darkness of great suffering… but first as Good Friday approaches we have to enter into the dark and the whirlwind…hoping against hope….
Last weekend was another inspiring and successful conference organised by the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, as before it was held at Oakham School and there were about 50 people present. The thing is something starts to happen in groups – a sort of group energy. I guess this can be a good energy or a less good or even malign energy. However I think if there are enough people present involved in contemplative prayer and who are aware in the present moment then there’s some sense of divine energy that gets evoked. It needs enough people present who are seekers and searchers – and in this case everyone I met was interested in the work and thought of Thomas Merton otherwise why would they be there. Merton was above all else a spiritual searcher and also someone who based his thinking on personal experience. I think that over three days of this sort of focus there is a build up to reach what has been called a critical mass of divine energy. Suddenly it is clear that we are all in it together, we are all connected in a meaningful and loose sort of way and I noticed in myself a letting go of tension and a warm feeling about being part of this community. There was a feeling of acceptance and belonging.
Of course this sort of experience also has, as any good Jungian would know, the shadow aspect which is that after there is a real sense of loss and perhaps deflation – a sadness that something uplifting has to end and that we all leave. The experience is so transient, was it an illusion? Is it just an idealisation of a fantasy or a projection of some unmet need? No it wasn’t because the longer lasting feeling is of having been spiritually nourished at some deep level. This is the outcome of when the group energy becomes the divine energy.
Donald Winnicott wrote so well about the development of the false self and how this gradually comes to take over the true alive self within the child. The child becomes compliant and so distanced from their centre which is the alive, spontaneous being – the spirit of the child. There’s an equivalent dilemma for the Christian where obedience becomes compliance. But perhaps it’s not so difficult. I think that if we are compliant to the false self of Christianity then we just become false self compliant Christians, which means that we are only partly alive in our faith. This is then about outward displays and superficial presentations of what it might mean to be Christian. Rather the journey is to become obedient to the Christ within and it is here that our true self overlaps with this inner Christ part. Thomas Merton understood this as the point where when we really know ourselves we know God. He writes about how coming to know God in the divine selfhood and coming to know our true selves converge in a single intuition – which is our awareness of our total dependence on God.
This sort of talk seems so strongly counter-cultural that it takes a while to see what it might mean. And to think about how it might happen. Again there are two paths to such a recognition of what is real. One is through depth psychotherapy, preferably Jungian analysis and the other through contemplation. In both we are brought to the realization of who and how we are. This is about crossing the abyss that separates our surface consciousness from the deep realms of spiritual unconsciousness. It’s a huge relief to being able to begin to let go of the personal false self and equally a relief to consider dumping the false self of much religion.